AUBURN, Ala. — Kerryon Johnson envisions a scenario that doesn’t look good for defensive backs who line up against Auburn football.
Johnson sees fellow junior running back Kamryn “Bubba” Pettway — all 240 pounds of him — catching a pass out of the backfield and getting an opposing cornerback in his crosshairs. It’s a favorable matchup for Pettway, who led the SEC in rushing yards per game last year as a bruising back.
“Bubba scores that every time,” Johnson said. “Either he gets laid out or he moves out of the way. … If the corner steps in his way, good for him. Respect. But I don’t think there’s going to be many corners out there that can stop him one-on-one, squared up. There’s very few. Very, very few.”
Under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, that scenario could become a recurring reality for Auburn football.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hired Lindsey to bring more balance to an offense that ran the ball 69 percent of the time in 2016. That run-heavy scheme led to big numbers for Pettway and Johnson, but it also made Auburn’s offense all-too-predictable, especially during its injury turmoil at quarterback.
Last fall, Pettway had 2 catches. The more versatile Johnson had 17. Lindsey’s offenses at Southern Miss and Arizona State used running backs much more in the passing game — Kalen Ballage ranked third for ASU last season with 44 catches and 469 receiving yards.
Auburn wants to put the ball in the air more in 2017 with added talent at quarterback, led by presumptive starter Jarrett Stidham. Instead of looking at that as fewer opportunities to run the ball, Pettway and Johnson see the change in philosophy as a positive.
“I’m great with that,” Pettway said. “I would love to catch passes out of the backfield this year.”
Becoming a better receiving threat has been a priority for Pettway throughout the offseason. Last year, he broke plenty of tackles against defensive linemen and linebackers.
Catching swings, screens or wheel routes out of the backfield — all staples of a Lindsey attack — should give Pettway and Johnson the opportunity to spread their impact to opposing secondaries.
“Oh, yeah, being 1-on-1 with any DB and any one of our running backs, I think it’s going to be a good 1-on-1 matchup for us,” Pettway said.
Lindsey said he’s pleased with the progress of Pettway in that area. It has made him a better all-around back instead of a pure power rusher.
“He’s improved. His route running has improved,” Lindsey said. “We know he can run the ball, but I want him to be really good in protection, really good in route running and obviously ball skills. His ball skills are fine. He just needs to catch more and more reps.”
The transition has been easier for Johnson. The No. 2 running back has been a receiving threat since his high school days at Madison (Ala.) Academy.
“It’s been fun,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been able to catch balls and getting to use that talent of mine again, it’s definitely been kind of a throwback. Obviously I’m not lined up wide and running go [routes]. But just being able to get in routes and run them and learn different tricks and things to get open — it’s definitely been fun.”
With Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis, Eli Stove, Nate Craig-Myers and Ryan Davis at wideout for the Tigers, Auburn’s running backs won’t have to be the leading receiving targets. But that isn’t changing Johnson’s attitude. He’s taking inspiration from a longtime NFL talent in his development as a receiving weapon.
“I remember watching something on NFL Network [on] Darren Sproles,” Johnson said. “That mindset he goes into of getting open and running his routes. I mean, he literally goes out there and focuses like a receiver does in terms of steps, yardage, leaning, getting open.
“That’s the kind of mindset I’ve tried to take in our individual and when we go into quarterbacks. I’ve got to get open like I’m the No. 1 option.”