AUBURN, Ala. — Kerryon Johnson’s SEC takeover during his junior season helped lift Auburn football to 10 wins and an appearance in the conference championship game.
Now the Tigers’ beloved offensive leader is headed to the NFL and the Tigers are left wondering how to carry on.
The feelings in the locker room after the Peach Bowl loss were reminiscent of those that preceded the 2016 season. That’s when Jovon Robinson’s dismissal followed Roc Thomas’ transfer and Peyton Barber’s surprising exit for the pros.
The plan then was for Auburn to run the ball by committee. While that appears to be the proposed 2018 scheme, it’s almost certain that one primary or a pair of rushers will emerge over the next eight months.
Since Gus Malzahn took over in 2012, one Auburn running back has been the clear leader in carries each season even though several talented — in some cases multiple professional-bound athletes — backs have been on the roster.
Johnson led the way wth 285 total carries in 2017 and the next closest in attempts was sophomore Kam Martin (74).
The 2016 season was an anomaly because Johnson started the year as the go-to guy, but Kamryn Pettway emerged out of nowhere when injuries tripped up Johnson. After those two (209, 182 attempts respectively), the next closest rusher was quarterback John Franklin III (46).
|Year||Top 2 Rushers||Attempts||Third RB||Attempts|
|2015||1. Peyton Barber||238||Roc Thomas||43|
|2. Jovon Robinson||117|
|2014||1. Cameron Artis-Payne||303||Corey Grant||60|
|2. Nick Marshall||153|
|2013||1. Tre Mason||317||Corey Grant||91|
|2. Nick Marshall||172|
|2012||1. Tre Mason||171||Jonathan Wallace||51|
|2. Onterio McCalebb||94|
By every indication, Malzahn, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and running backs coach Tim Horton will be looking for one athlete to rise above the rest this spring and summer.
After a strange season during which Kam Martin watched from the sidelines even as Johnson and Pettway navigated injuries of sorts, it seems the top spot is wide open — and it likely will belong to an underclassman.
Lindsey expressed a belief in Martin’s ability to become a 25-30 carry guy after Auburn’s Iron Bowl win, but also described his confidence in the unit in its entirety. Malzahn, who touched on the 5-foot-10 rusher’s lack of size at several points in 2017, had more to say when freshman Devan Barrett was brought up.
“He’s getting more comfortable,” Malzahn said of the newcomer. “I know the coaches are getting more comfortable with him. He’s been protecting the football. I think he’s done a good job, and he’s getting more confident, too.”
Barrett, who has probably the most experience at wide receiver, seems to be the best fit for Lindsey’s balanced offense of the future.
Then there was JaTarvious Whitlow, a “surprise” who evoked excitement from players and coaches alike before the Peach Bowl despite missing his freshman season with an ankle injury.
“He’s explosive. Like, it’s weird. He has elusive speed,” cornerback Jordyn Peters said. “He’ll come out, and he has good vision also. He knows when to hit the pockets and reverse field. He had one play where he reversed it and it’s just to think like, if he didn’t get hurt, he probably could have contributed a little bit this year. He’s going to be a good player. I love playing with Whitlow.”
Barrett and Whitlow will have a spring and summer with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell to add weight to their 6-foot frames. That adjustment and lots of extra work could result in a starting position come September.
The Tigers will open next season Sept. 1 in Atlanta against Washington, which is returning its top rusher in Myles Gaskin. Until kickoff in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, only one thing is certain: Someone will be running the football for Auburn.