AUBURN, Ala. — As Auburn football prepared for its opener against Georgia Southern, quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the Tigers passing game were the focus.
What most were not discussing, understandably so, was the Tigers backfield. It didn’t matter that Kamryn Pettway would be suspended for the Tigers’ first game. Pettway’s play had said enough in 2016. Co-starter Kerryon Johnson simply would rush right through the Eagles. The Tigers’ backups were young, but coaches raved about them throughout fall camp.
Still, a worrier’s perspective may have been different. Those stressed about what could go wrong in 2017 likely saw a converted fullback few had expected to break out in 2016, an inspiring athlete with a lengthy injury history and a trio of unproven newcomers when examining Gus Malzahn’s roster. If the injury bug bit like it had the previous fall at any point, it would be problematic.
It took less than 30 minutes into the 2017 season.
In the second quarter against Georgia Southern, Johnson pulled up short of what was a sure-touchdown and left the game. Hamstring. Kam Martin entered the game and totaled 136 yards, equaling Johnson’s effort. Fans probably walked out of Jordan-Hare Stadium thinking, “Everything is fine.”
Dabo Swinney’s team would be a far different opponent. Clemson would be bigger and better in every way. Pettway, who’d earned the reputation as a bruiser in 2016, was built for a meeting with the defending national champs. Those behind him? It remained to be seen.
Now, there’s no question Martin is fast. In high school, he was an anchor on a relay team that set a national record and went on to win the state title in the 4×200-meter relay. But the Port Arthur, Texas, native was listed at 5-foot-10, 182 pounds.
In person, be it at practice in pads or walking through the Auburn Athletic Complex in street clothes, Martin looks smaller. Would he be able to move the football against a team like Clemson?
In the press conference after Auburn’s loss in Death Valley — Kam Martin had zero carries in the loss — Gus Malzahn voiced something about the size of Clemson’s defenders. Someone in orange and blue — Malzahn or someone else — had been unsure of Martin’s ability to perform against top talent.
Over the next several weeks, everything went according to plan. Pettway had his first 100-yard game in Week 3 against Mercer and Johnson went on a tear following Auburn’s blowout of Missouri.
Running back depth was a non-issue — until Auburn’s win at Arkansas. Near the end of that game, Pettway suffered a fractured scapula that proved to be season-ending.
Coaches and players addressed the issue. Confidence in the rest of Auburn’s backfield wasn’t lacking. Actions, however, spoke louder than words.
Johnson carried the bulk of the load and everyone on the outside looking in wondered if Martin, Malik Miller or Devan Barrett would ever be the guy.
Over the next four games, Johnson totaled 113 carries against Texas A&M, Georgia, Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama — with the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide sporting the top two rushing defenses in the SEC. He went over 100 yards in each contest. There isn’t enough praise to give Johnson for what he did for Auburn. Offensive player of the year honors from SEC coaches and The Associated Press don’t do him justice.
Yet running into the College Football Playoff spot with a program on his back was a feat too tough for Johnson. He tried anyway. Johnson, who unanimously was dubbed the toughest competitor in the locker room, faced the SEC East champion Bulldogs in Atlanta with a suspected rib issue, a known shoulder injury and possibly more.
After the loss in the open locker room, Johnson was asked “How healthy are you?” and instead pointed the question to his head coach.
Johnson’s locker was at a corner near the door. From his seat, Martin was to his right and Barrett was to his left. All three offered praise for each other. The younger players commended the one-time Heisman hopeful for what he gave and what he taught them in the process.
So many things went right for Auburn’s running backs in 2017. Johnson’s injury history may have somehow played to his advantage. In three years on the Plains he’d navigated the training room and knew how to prioritize his health. Without him, Auburn’s offense likely would have fallen off as it had the previous year.
Ironically, if Auburn had been able to muster up more yards on the ground against Georgia, it could have taken some pressure off of Stidham and Co. What ifs and could haves are pointless now, but moving forward it ensures that running back depth — beyond just two successful standouts — is a priority.