AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football isn’t going to complicate things at running back this season. Kamryn Pettway led the SEC in rushing yards per game, and Kerryon Johnson is a versatile complement to his skill set.
But one of the new-look Tiger offense’s highest priorities this spring has been the race for the top job behind the junior duo of Pettway and Johnson. While it might seem minor in importance, Auburn learned the value of quality depth at running back last fall.
“Prior to last year, we hadn’t gotten anybody hurt at that position,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “But last year, I mean, we had to really test our depth. So we’ve got to be prepared. Developing that third back will be really important.”
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At the moment, Auburn has three candidates for the No. 3 job on campus — sophomore Kam Martin, redshirt freshman Malik Miller and junior walk-on C.J. Tolbert.
The race is important enough to the Tigers that the trio of reserves had the majority of the carries in the first spring scrimmage. In the second abbreviated scrimmage, Tolbert scored the only touchdown.
“All three of those guys are really competing and getting a lot of reps,” coach Gus Malzahn said last Saturday. “We’ve got a lot of information with Pettway and K.J. and Coach Horton has kind of transitioned into making sure those three get good reps even with the first group. It’s a really good competition.”
Martin projects as the early favorite to win the No. 3 job after taking the most carries behind Pettway and Johnson in 2016. Martin had 44 touches for 320 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, including an 80-yard performance in a 56-3 beatdown of Arkansas.
“Kam Martin’s kind of a little smaller, shifty, quick back,” Horton said.
He might be the smaller option, but Martin grew in the offseason. The Texas native added 15 pounds to get to 188 pounds, and he wants to put on more weight. He wants to be 195 pounds and still retain that explosive speed.
“I feel like I’ll get the job done,” Martin said. “I feel like my speed is very, very big, I feel like I need to work on my lateral movements, you know, because a lot of people say I run downhill and I just need to make people miss.”
Martin is also close with quarterback Jarrett Stidham because of their Texas ties and brief shared experience at Baylor. His speed adds a third dimension for Auburn behind the power of Pettway and the all-around game of Johnson.
While Martin recorded the third-most yards among running backs last season, he wasn’t the original No. 3 option. In the first two nonconference games of 2016, Miller averaged 8 carries per contest, and he would have had more if he didn’t suffer a season-ending meniscus injury against UL-Monroe.
Miller, who was Johnson’s former high school teammate at Madison (Ala.) Academy, brings more of a Pettway-like style of running to the competition. Auburn lists him at 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds this spring.
“Malik Miller is coming off the knee injury, and he’s healthy,” Horton said. “He’s kind of the one-cut, north-south type runner.”
If Auburn wants to go with more of a natural rotation option behind Pettway at the No. 3 spot, Miller is the ideal candidate. Horton likes his progress this spring, but he wants to see one key area of improvement before the start of the season.
“I think Malik‘s biggest challenge right now is continue to work on his pad level,” Horton said. “Sometimes he plays too high, and that in turn lets him be susceptible to big hits against him. So he needs to work on pad level.”
The surprise wild card in the race, Tolbert has been a highly talked-about name during the last two weeks. The 5-foot-7 walk-on from nearby Dadeville is now eligible after transferring from Harding University, a Division III school in Arkansas.
In addition to his touchdown run in the second scrimmage, Tolbert also tore off a long run with the second-team offense in the first day of drills at Jordan-Hare Stadium. He’s another pure speed option out of the backfield for the Tigers.
“He’s a very gifted ball carrier,” Horton said. “If you remember the spring game last year, he did a really nice job there. Real pleased with him and really pleased with the whole group.”
Tolbert is the longest shot to win the No. 3 job. However, the Tigers like the value Tolbert brings to the room. His good performances in the scrimmages should push Martin and Miller to new heights for the rest of the spring.
“C.J. is getting an opportunity too,” Malzahn said. “He’s in the mix. … He’s got a burst. He’ll hit the line and he doesn’t need much of a crease. Really what stands out to me is he’s a tough guy. I like tough guys.”
Auburn has one more option to consider for the No. 3 job later this year — incoming 4-star running back signee Devan Barrett. While fellow signee Alaric Williams still has some academic issues to sort out, Barrett should be able to go full-speed at Auburn soon.
Horton said last week Barrett “will have a chance” to win that No. 3 job this fall. The veteran running backs coach is high on Barrett’s skill set coming out of high school.
“He’s got great ball skills,” Horton said. “He’s got good height, he’s in the process of putting on some weight, so he’ll probably come in here at about 195 pounds. But I could see him in a year being a 210-pound kid. He’s probably got more speed and acceleration than anybody on our roster right now at tailback, with maybe the exception of Kam Martin.”
While Barrett won’t be in action this weekend when Auburn holds its annual A-Day Game, he’ll be a factor in the race later this year.
The race might not have all of its competitors just yet, but the No. 3 running back spot at Auburn undoubtedly will be an important storyline to watch this weekend for the SEC’s leading rushing attack.