AUBURN, Ala. — Kerryon Johnson didn’t make many new friends during Auburn’s last two home games.
The 6-foot running back was busy darting past and flattening defenders who stepped in his path. After initiating several harsh hits, Johnson even managed to stay on his feet, only to jog back to the line of scrimmage to get reacquainted with the opposing defense.
But the sophomore doesn’t hate the LSU or Louisiana-Monroe defenders he viciously bulldozed — he just despises losing.
“It was just wanting to win,” Johnson said. “ I got tired of losing close games — got tired of losing in general. Shoot, I lost more games in my first two years here than I did in high school alone. I just got tired of losing and had to do my part to influence the win for us.”
Johnson did his fair share and then some.
Against LSU, Johnson totaled 161 yards of offense (93 rushing and 68 receiving), reaching the 500-yard career mark in the first half.
A week later, in Auburn’s homecoming blowout of ULM, he had his second career 100-yard game (146 yards), adding two more rushing touchdowns to his stat line and surpassing his career best (124 yards) in the first half.
When Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was asked his thoughts on his sophomore running back in post game press conferences, the head coach’s eyes got big. Johnson, Malzahn said, was running like a “full grown man.”
“Kerryon is starting to come into his own,” Malzahn said. “He is very elusive, breaks tackles and he is running extremely hard. We think he is in a good spot.”
Johnson also is helping the Tiger offense get to where offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wants it. He moves the ball when he has it, but his presence is just as important when the ball isn’t in his hands.
“He does so many things. He can block when it’s third down, pass protection. He can catch a check-down. He can run, he can do a whole bunch of stuff,” sophomore quarterback Sean White said. “It just makes me feel real good. He’s always going to do the right thing in the right spot and make plays.”
Part of Johnson’s success has come with time and experience. In each game this year Johnson — he rushed for 208 yards last year as a freshman — has absorbed more about the college game.
“When you start getting into the heart of the season you just have to find a rhythm,” Johnson said. “And I feel like the offense as a whole has found a rhythm, once we clean up our red zone issues. For me it’s just running the ball like always.”
The other part of Johnson’s success is while he exerts maximum effort at all times, he never forces action on the field.
Even though he’s looked at times like he was trying to take over the 6-foot, 229-pound Kamryn Pettway’s role as the more bruising running back, he’s fine just the way he is — and with the more complete style he’s developing.
“I’m just running, sometimes I don’t even think I’m going to make as big of an impact on somebody as I do,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen first-hand what Pettway can do when he runs into another human, so I’m definitely not as thunderous as he is. I’m just trying to run the ball hard and get as many yards as I can.”
Johnson has helped open up the passing game for White and has focused on red-zone execution.
“Our offense is moving towards a great direction,” Johnson said. “Being more balanced but still being able to run the ball with power… We knew we were going to move the ball up and down the field, we just had to finish drives and do everything right in the red zone.”
The Tigers solved some red zone issues against ULM, converting on 4-of-5 attempts. Now they’ll transition back to SEC play and try to execute on the road against a gritty Mississippi State team.
Still, no one knows better than Johnson what needs to happen for Auburn to have continued success and reach its goal of playing in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
“We just have to carry on every week on out.”