AUBURN, Ala. — In Gus Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn, there’s usually been a clear plan for starting the season at running back. The Tigers tend to go with a steady rotation at the position through the first few games until a No. 1 option emerges from the pack.
Heading into the fourth week of the 2016 season, Auburn doesn’t have that.
Kerryon Johnson has been listed as the starting running back on Auburn’s depth chart since the beginning of the season. But on Saturday against Texas A&M, Kamryn Pettway took the first handoff at running back.
So who’s the starting running back at Auburn right now?
“I think it’s a co-deal,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Wednesday night. “They both have shown great ability to make plays and be tough … Kinda like we said at the beginning of the year, I could see those guys complementing each other well, and so far, they’re doing that.”
Johnson currently leads Auburn in rushing yards (278), attempts (56) and touchdowns (4). Pettway is close behind in yards with 275 on just 35 carries, as he didn’t record a single touch in the season opener against Clemson.
Pettway has led Auburn in rushing in each of the last two games, recording 152 against Arkansas State and 123 against Texas A&M. At 240 pounds, Pettway is more of an every-down, between-the-tackles runner that Auburn has based its rushing attack on in Malzahn’s tenure.
“It’s huge to have a downhill, physical guy,” Lashlee said. “When he gets to the second level, people don’t want to get near him. They’re going low.”
But in two games, Pettway has proven he’s more than just a short-yardage option. He had 4 carries of 10-plus yards, including a 64-yarder, against Arkansas State. He added a 33-yard carry against Texas A&M.
“For a big guy, he’s got some quick feet, now,” Lashlee said. “He can get in and out, he can jump cut like you all have seen him do sometimes. But what is so special about him is when he does it he’s still going north-south. There’s no east-west in Pettway, and I think that’s why he seems to generate a lot of yards quickly.”
In a twist on what was expected heading into the season, Johnson has been more of the close-range option for Auburn at running back.
The Tigers have gone to Johnson in Wildcat packages in the red zone with solid success. Both of his touchdowns against Clemson and Texas A&M came off direct snaps.
Questions swirled about the 211-pound Johnson’s durability as a starting running back in the SEC, but so far, he’s held up well in the rotation with Pettway.
“The question that everyone asked quite a bit was can he hold up and be durable,” Malzahn said of Johnson earlier this season. “He earned a lot of his yards after contact, which I thought was very good.”
While sticking with a running back-by-committee approach for an entire season might be a new experience for the Tigers under Malzahn, it’s not rare for either the program or the current coaching staff.
“I know in ’06 (Malzahn and Lashlee) had Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (at Arkansas), and I know here at Auburn we’ve had guys like Ronnie (Brown) and Cadillac (Williams),” Lashlee said. “And I’m not putting those guys in that same category and breath, but you had two really solid players that both need to play and both are very productive, so you’re going to continue to play them both.”
That approach will continue into Saturday evening’s matchup with LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Auburn will look to compete with the rushing attack that superstar running back Leonard Fournette provides for Les Miles’ Tigers.
In the eyes of Lashlee, two options are better than one right now for the Auburn offense as it tries to bring back some of its explosion against SEC competition.
“You hope that each game they have a little different personality on who is feeling it more, and you try to stay with the hot hand,” Lashlee said. “Hopefully those guys are able to stay productive longer throughout the season. I don’t see any signs of either one of them slowing down with the productivity and their opportunities.”