AUBURN, Ala. – With the early departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway to the NFL, it’s logical to wonder about Auburn’s running backs going into 2018. Tigers fans should not panic.
A simple response to replacing Johnson and Pettway would be for coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to use multiple backs in a rotation. Given Malzahn’s history, though, it is clear that committee backfields are not something fans will see on the Plains. And given Malzahn’s history, running back is the position that should be questioned the least. He has struggled to find receivers and he has had tough times with quarterbacks. Running backs and other skill players involved in the running game, not so much.
Here’s a look at Auburn’s 1,000-yard backs in Malzahn’s system since 2009. (He was coordinator from 2009-11, was coach at Arkansas State in 2012, then returned as Auburn’s coach in 2013.
Auburn has been as consistent as any team in the nation in running the football, with 11 1,000-yard rushers since 2009. That’s 11 in eight seasons.
Auburn returns some talented backs. Though they’re not proven, most saw the field in some capacity during the 2017 season. Let’s look at the guys who will be toting the football in 2018.
Martin (5 feet 10, 185 pounds), a sophomore, is one of the fastest players on Auburn’s squad. He had 74 carries for 453 yards and two touchdowns this season. While Martin’s size and skill set says he should be effective catching the ball out of the backfield, it’s rumored that he continues to struggle catching the ball in practice.
Barrett’s true freshman campaign resulted in a frustratingly small workload: He ran the ball 14 times for 79 yards. Barrett, a four-star recruit, usually was inserted in packages that resulted in him catching the football (he had 10 receptions). Barrett (6-0, 185) might be considered the favorite to be the feature back in 2018; expect him to gain bulk during his first college offseason.
Miller (5-11, 225) lacks a burst, but has the size that is easier to trust between the tackles. Miller was the back who was called upon after Johnson was injured in the SEC championship game. That he was the guy who was subbed in shows how the staff feels about him.
Whitlow (6-0, 216) was a late addition on National Signing Day last year. The local kid was a touchdown machine as LaFayette’s quarterback, then fought through an injury during fall camp and was redshirted. It was assumed he was going to play wide receiver, but he reportedly impressed coaches during bowl practices last month.
Martin (5-11, 200), who signed in the December early signing period, surprised many when he committed to Auburn over Alabama. He is an early enrollee and seems to have the most upside among Auburn’s backs. Malzahn has hesitated to give freshmen a lot of touches; Martin may be used in a backup role early, but his talent may make it hard to keep him off the field.
(You can follow Zac Blackerby on Twitter @Zblackerby)
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