AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway was never expected to emerge as one of the country’s best running backs this season.
The sophomore wasn’t prophesied to lead the SEC in rushing or to become another of head coach Gus Malzahn’s 1,000-yard backs. Pettway wasn’t even the Tigers’ projected starter at the end of preseason camp in August.
Yet as the 6-foot, 240 pound Pettway has bulldozed defenders and burst through holes, he’s accomplished all of this and more.
“He’s been a very pleasant surprise,” former Auburn running back Joe Cribbs said. “He’s been one of those guys who, though he probably doesn’t realize it yet, he’s creating a legacy and a tale that will be talked about for a long time.”
Legacy is not a word used lightly on the Plains where countless legends have flourished. Terry Henley beat the No. 2 out of Alabama, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams went crazy and Bo Jackson soared over the top.
The shadows of the icons who preceded Auburn running backs can be overwhelming. How does a competitor arrive and rush toward their own version of greatness?
The first group effort
In order to build on success, there first had to be a foundation.
Talented rushers played for the Tigers over the years, but Auburn football wasn’t dubbed “Running Back U” until William Andrews and Joe Cribbs combined in the backfield for head coach Doug Barfield, who replaced Ralph “Shug” Jordan in 1976.
Both had been highly recruited, two-time high school All-Americans. The 6-foot, 210-pound Andrews, was a year older than Cribbs. Andrews was delegated to more of a blocking role and rushed 1,347 yards (5.0 average per carry) in four seasons.
Cribbs entered his freshman year with rising hopes. He expected to put on an orange and blue jersey and shine just as he had at Sulligent High School in Alabama. He quickly realized how much harder it would be playing in the SEC.
“I remember my first game my freshman year I didn’t even make the travel squad,” Cribbs recalled. “I was so disappointed and so frustrated, so down on myself.”
In an attempt to distract himself from his distress, Cribbs returned to his hometown as the team set out to open its season. An uncle he was close with sat him down at a high school game and calmly urged Cribbs to return to Auburn. Show the coaching staff the star he really was, his uncle said.
“When I came back I had a whole different focus,” Cribbs said. “I knew I had to show the coaches what I could do, so I became a practice guy. When we practiced, I played my game. I was playing full speed all the time.”
As Cribbs began shredding Auburn’s scout-team defense, coaches noticed. Cribbs eventually moved up to the varsity. On his first carry he zipped 62 yards and “never looked back.”
“I would have scored, but the official couldn’t get out of my way fast enough,” Cribbs said. “So I ended up running into the official on the sideline. I was excited about it because it was really the first I had the opportunity to touch the ball. Of course, I got many, many more opportunities after that.”
Cribbs rushed for 1,205 yards during his junior season. In his final year at Auburn, while sharing responsibilities with James Brooks (a first team All-SEC talent who rushed for more than 1,000 yards during his final two seasons), Cribbs again reached the 1,000-yard mark. He earned back-to-back first-team All-SEC honors. He was named the 1979 SEC Player of the Year.
“We (Brooks and Cribbs) kind of laid the foundation for the future,” Cribbs said. “I think that our play at Auburn inspired guys like Bo Jackson and Lionel James, and a lot of other running backs who came later on. I think all of that kind of started that snowball downhill.”
And as RBU was established, the brilliant backs began enrolling.
Commitment to tradition
Auburn’s most famous running back arrived in 1982 and immediately began sculpting himself into college football history.
Bo Jackson ended Auburn’s nine-game losing streak to in-state rival Alabama with a 1-yard touchdown leap as a freshman. As a sophomore he reached the single-season 1,000-yard mark.
The Alabama native was a two-time All-American and won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 after totaling 1,786 yards in 11 games. Jackson remains Auburn’s all-time leader in career rushing yards with 4,303.
Despite the achievements of Jackson and numerous others, the Tigers weren’t always prosperous. In 1999, Auburn finished dead last in the NCAA in rushing with 68.0 yards per game (748 total).
The challenge of helping the program restore its reputation and retaking its top rushing spot was exactly the kind of challenge Rudi Johnson was looking for out of junior college.
“I followed college football, but I was coming from the East Coast, from ACC territory,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get on a big stage and play against the best athletes in the world, and of course, everyone knows that’s in the SEC.”
The Virginia native helped Butler Community College (Kansas) win back-to-back national titles. He was a first-team All-American and the NJCAA Player of the Year in 1999. He was coming coming to Auburn as an unknown, but with loads of determination.
“You can imagine how Auburn fans felt about being last in the NCAA in rushing the football,” Johnson said. “It was a big task, but I wanted to show them I could get the running game back to what fans and players were accustomed to, and that was having great feature backs. I wanted that pressure as far as helping go from the bottom to the top, where Auburn belongs.”
Johnson rushed for 1,567 yards and finished 10th in Heisman voting in 2000. He was the SEC Player of the Year, leading the Tigers to a 9-4 record and an SEC Championship Game appearance.
During his lone year on the Plains, Johnson grew close to a skilled redshirt freshman, providing encouragement and motivation.
“If you wanted to be great, you had to embrace the challenge,” Johnson said. “Some people aren’t up for it. Playing in the SEC every week — playing at that level against those kind of athletes — it’s tough. So you had to be up for the challenge no matter who you played.”
Four years later, Ronnie Brown would be a key piece in the Tiger’s undefeated 2004 season.
A place in the ambush
As a kid growing up in Cartersville, Ga., Brown wasn’t familiar with Auburn. Instead of admiring Bo Jackson, Brown adored Herschel Walker and watched Georgia’s Garrison Hearst lead the nation in touchdowns.
His idol — the player Brown most often emulated in his front yard — was Oklahoma State’s Heisman-winning runner Barry Sanders.
“When I began to get recruited, that’s when I became aware of Auburn and the whole history of the SEC,” Brown said. “That’s when I really started wanting to play in the SEC and be a part of what it was known for.”
Brown was a 4-star running back and prized recruit in Georgia, but when he crossed state lines he gathered the transition to college football would be more difficult than he anticipated.
“You look at the history and you’re not even thinking about the pressure because as a high school kid your mindset is, ‘Oh, I can do that anyway,’” Brown recalled. “It’s just kind of innate to think you can do that, ‘I can be successful and I can be a part of this.’”
Brown landed behind Johnson in the lineup in 2000. The following year Carnell “Cadillac” Williams arrived at Auburn. Williams’ arrival showed another factor of having success as an Auburn running back was finding a place in a crowded backfield — a pack of Tigers is called an ambush or streak.
“It was tough. I thought about transferring and all this stuff,” Brown said. “There was a lot that went into it, but eventually it was just me accepting the challenge and wanting to be a part of it and working towards all of that. I didn’t even think about the previous greats in terms of added pressure. I had enough with the guys that were there also trying to get on the field.”
During his sophomore season in 2002, Brown started to find his place. He rushed for 1,008 yards and earned second-team All-SEC honors.
In 2004, he nearly reached the 1,000-yard mark for the second time (913 yards). He and Williams (1,165 yards in 2004) propelled Tommy Tuberville’s team to its undefeated season.
“I think that was the greatest achievement,” Brown said. “Just being able to say that I stuck it out and it ended up working out.”
Peyton’s secret stuff
The cyclical process continued over the years. Running backs develop unique styles and are pushed forward by different driving forces. Some run for fame and others for family.
Coaches educate top-ranked recruits on the history of Running Back U. In turn, eager high school stars seldom lacking will or confidence appear on the Plains hoping to set records and win championships.
To do so, rushers adjust and find their place in busy backfields. It’s happened often. The list of Auburn’s all-time top rushers is filled with players who shared time or waited for it.
In 2010, freshman running back Michael Dyer rushed for 1,093 yards. Dyer, along with running backs Mario Fannin (395 yards) and Onterio McCalebb (810 yards), teamed with quarterback Cam Newton (1,473 rushing yards) to win the BCS national title.
Three years later, running back Tre Mason would lead an unlikely bunch to an appearance in what was the final BCS title game.
Mason totaled 1,816 rushing yards during his senior season. He was named first-team All-America, first-team All-SEC, and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. The 5-10, 205-pound back scored 32 career rushing touchdowns — four came in the 2013 SEC title game. He ran for 304 yards in that game against Missouri. That total is second-best in Auburn history.
Dual-threat QB Nick Marshall added 1,068 yards while Cameron Artis-Payne (610) and Corey Grant (647) both were key contributors to the rushing attack that averaged 328.3 yards per game.
Peyton Barber carried the ball 10 times the next season. A year later, the 5-11, 225-pound Barber reached the 1,000-yard mark.
Like many before him, Barber understood the responsibility he carried on each possession. He didn’t let it weigh him down.
“You can’t really afford to worry yourself about that (place in history). That’s something you can’t really control,” said Barber, now a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “If you start living up to the hype, then you live up to the hype. If not, you can’t afford to stress. You just have to trust in yourself and believe in your talent.”
Though he felt he had more work to do, Barber pursued an NFL career to support his family. He’s kept in contact with sophomores Kerryon Johnson and Pettway.
At times, Pettway’s journey has been eerily similar to other backs. He switched from fullback to running back. He landed in the middle of a young and talented backfield. Like Brown, Pettway considered leaving in moments of frustration. Barber encouraged him keep going.
Pettway is the first player since Jackson to rush for more than 150 yards in four consecutive games. He has 1,106 yards in (really) seven games. He’s the fourth best in the country with 138.3 yards per game.
Speed is great. Strength is a bonus. Perhaps the most essential, unquantifiable element to success? Part of the reason Pettway has been able to do what he’s done this season?
“Just having heart,” Barber said. “That’s something that either you have it or you don’t. There’s going to be times when you don’t think you can go but you have to go.”
From the moment Auburn rushers arrive on the Plains, they’re moving. They dodge defenders and dart into end zones. Players progress to the next season and a lucky few play at the next level. In time some return to the sideline and stand alongside those they understand best.
The good news for those still hoping to settle at Auburn is plenty of uncovered ground remains. And history shows, “When Auburn is at their best, I don’t care what anyone says,” Cribbs said. “Auburn is at its best when we run the football.”