AUBURN, Ala. — In the eyes of his coaches, Kerryon Johnson answered his critics last Saturday night against LSU.
The 211-pound sophomore running back had one of the best performances of his young career. He took over Auburn’s touches late in the game after a minor injury to Kamryn Pettway and carried the ball 22 times against a punishing LSU defense — an ability some thought he didn’t have at his size.
“I think he answered the questions of durability and if people think he’s tough enough,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Wednesday. “He ran like an Auburn running back.”
But after Auburn’s 18-13 upset win over LSU, there was one critic who still was tough on Johnson — himself. Of the 22 carries he had against the Bayou Bengals, he focused on the two late in the first half in which he was stuffed just outside the goal line by LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith.
“Bottom line is that I didn’t get in,” Johnson said. “They looked to me to get in on a fourth-and-1, and I didn’t. The next time, that has to happen. … When you have it at the 1-yard line, it doesn’t matter what the coaches call, doesn’t matter what the defense does, whoever has the ball has to get in.”
Lashlee said Johnson couldn’t have done anything more on those failed goal-line plunges against LSU, but he knew that wouldn’t stop his starting running back from blaming himself.
“That’s the kind of kid he is,” Lashlee said. “They played it well. Probably if we had taken our wide receiver and move him out wider, (Johnson) would have bounced it and walked in and felt more comfortable doing that. So that’s not on him, but that’s who he is. He came off to the sideline and I noticed it then — he was mad at himself. Well, he gave all he had on that play.”
Johnson looked like he gave all he had on several runs for Auburn against LSU, including a highlight-reel trucking of safety John Battle and another carry in which he dragged a pile of defenders up the field.
Film Room is staying open late tonight.
Kerryon Johnson ran with a ton of power on this late first-half drive, as you can see here. pic.twitter.com/PXBOMljD8Y
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 26, 2016
“I thought Kerryon Johnson was a full-grown man,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “He was physical as I’ve ever seen. He was running with passion. He broke tackles. They’ve got a lot of guys who can really tackle.”
Through the first four games of the season, Johnson has carried the ball 78 times for 371 yards and 4 touchdowns. In a strange twist on expectations, the 240-pound Pettway has a bigger mark in yards per carry (6.46) while Johnson has looked like more of the grind-it-out back.
Johnson, who never was an every-down back during his playing days at Alabama small-school powerhouse Madison Academy, embraces that physical role for the Tigers.
“I felt about as good as you can running against a defense like that in the fourth quarter,” Johnson said. “I wanted this. So if I had to go 15 more, I had to run it because I wanted to win that badly. It doesn’t matter to me if I get beat up or bruised. We have go out there and win.”
According to Pro Football Focus, no other SEC running back has forced more missed tackles this season than Johnson. He’s been able to do that with speed and agility — like in his weaving, ankle-breaking touchdown run against Arkansas State — and with raw power.
That mix of skills makes Johnson an ideal running back alongside Pettway for Auburn, which had a major question mark at the position during an offseason that featured three different players leave the program.
“There were a couple of times where he punished some guys,” Lashlee said. “He’s the guy that you think is going to make people miss and all that, but he’s done a really good of running downfield. I think him and Kamryn have both complemented each other very well.”