AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
Through all the changes with the Auburn offense over the last several decades, a star-driven rushing attack has been a near constant. That shouldn’t change in 2017, even with Air Raid disciple Chip Lindsey taking over as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.
“At the end of the day we want to be a run, play-action team,” Lindsey said in his introductory press conference in January. “That’s what we’ve always done. If you go back to our time at Southern Miss and last year at Arizona State, that has been our goal. I think when you commit to that style of offense, trying to get the ball to your playmakers, I think good things are going to happen.”
Lindsey inherits too much rushing firepower for Auburn to stray too far from what it’s done best under Gus Malzahn. The SEC’s leader in rushing yards per game is back, along with a versatile upperclassman and a trio of underclassmen who each bring a different weapon to the table.
Auburn had the league’s best running game in 2016, but it wasn’t quite what it could have been. The Tigers need to avoid the issues that limited the attack last fall. However, these particular problems aren’t something that can be schemed around or fixed with coaching.
2017 Auburn football running backs
- Kamryn Pettway (Junior; 6-foot, 235 pounds)
- 209 carries for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns
- Kerryon Johnson (Junior; 6-foot, 212 pounds)
- 182 carries for 895 yards and 11 touchdowns
- Kam Martin (Sophomore; 5-foot-10, 182 pounds)
- 44 carries for 320 yards and three touchdowns
- Malik Miller (Sophomore; 5-foot-11, 225 pounds)
- 16 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown
- Devan Barrett (True freshman; 6-foot, 185 pounds)
- C.J. Tolbert (Junior; 5-foot-7, 182 pounds)*
- Cedric Chambers (Sophomore; 5-foot-7, 182 pounds)*
- Eugene Govan (Sophomore; 5-foot-7, 186 pounds)*
CONFIDENCE: Returning production
Auburn led the SEC in rushing last season — one that started with more questions than answers at running back. After three running backs left the program before the start of the year, the Tigers found plenty of top-level production from a converted fullback, a former fourth-string underclassman and two true freshmen to pile up 271.3 yards per game.
This season, Auburn returns all but one of its rotation pieces at running back, and the one it lost — Stanton Truitt — was a converted wide receiver. The Tigers are led by Kamryn Pettway, the former fullback who led the league in rushing yards per game with his sledgehammer style of rushing. Pettway slimmed down some this offseason and could add a greater element of speed to his game in 2017.
Kerryon Johnson led the team in touchdowns and turned into a do-it-all weapon for the Tigers in 2016. Johnson was the shifty counterpart to the powerful Pettway, a Wildcat formation quarterback and a decent receiver out of the backfield at 7.35 yards per catch. Johnson might have the greatest potential of any running back in Chip Lindsey’s new scheme because of that versatility.
The fleet-footed Kam Martin put on some weight and will be ready for his second season as a change-of-pace Tiger. Malik Miller, who is more of a downhill runner, returns from an early-season knee injury. Auburn also has former 4-star recruit Devan Barrett, who could earn some playing time, according to running backs coach Tim Horton.
Auburn’s running backs have to adjust to life in the more balanced Lindsey offense, which probably means less carries but more opportunities to get out in space. Still, Lindsey says the running game will remain a cornerstone of the attack at Auburn, and the Tigers boast one of the strongest returning cores in the entire country.
CAUTION: Injury history
Auburn has all that returning production at running back, but it was limited last season by injury. Pettway’s leg injury against Vanderbilt played a huge role in the offense’s slide in a disappointing November (2-2).
Pettway didn’t even start dominating the carries last fall until Johnson’s ankle injury against Mississippi State. Injuries have been a recurring issue for Johnson, who had shoulder surgery before the 2016 season and tweaked his ankle again at A-Day this spring.
One of his backups and former high school teammates, Miller, is coming off a major knee injury of his own. It’s probably a little too early to call this unit “injury-prone,” but the doubts are there.
The arrival of Barrett should help Auburn out with additional depth at running back this season, and Horton likes what he’s seen out of walk-on C.J. Tolbert. If Martin — who hasn’t been affected by injury yet in his young Auburn career — can develop into more of an all-around back, the Tigers shouldn’t have too much to worry about this fall.
Still, another rash of injuries to a position that already takes quite a lot of contact could keep Auburn’s offense from reaching its full potential in 2017. It’s the biggest thing that could hold back another potentially record-breaking rushing attack on the Plains.