Kerryon Johnson (above) is shown at a preseason practice.
On the surface the loss of Jovon Robinson appears to be a major blow for the Auburn offense. Had he taken care of business off the field, Robinson would have likely been Auburn’s leading rusher in 2016 and Gus Malzahn’s 11th consecutive 1,000-yard rusher at the running back position.
During the second half of the 2015 season Robinson showed plenty of potential of becoming Auburn’s next “go-to” running back. His dismissal from the program magnifies the previous losses of Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas. The Tigers must now replace their top three rushers from 2015 with Kerryon Johnson becoming top returning rusher.
Robinson closed the 2015 season averaging 103 yards rushing per game during Auburn’s last six contests of the season. He was expected to pick up where he left off, rushing for 126 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
Over the past 20 seasons Auburn returned an average of 1,206 combined rushing yardage from the previous season. With the loss of their top three running backs the Tigers return only 465 yards in 2016, the fourth lowest total from 1997-2016. The Tigers will have good talent to work with during 2016, but the running back position will lack experience. The last three times Auburn returned less than 500 rushing yards from the season before they finished No. 5 in rushing in the Southeastern Conference during 2015, No. 2 in 2005 and No. 7 in 2001. The priority now becomes maximizing the abilities and talent remaining at the running back position.
Though Robinson was Auburn’s most established rusher it doesn’t mean someone else won’t step up in 2016. This upcoming season very well could be the first time Malzahn truly has a running game by committee, especially early in the season.
All eyes will be on Kerryon Johnson as he will likely be the first option at becoming the primary rusher in 2016. Johnson has the size to become the every down back, but durability remains a questionable aspect of his game. Coming off shoulder surgery Johnson received the green light for full contact this preseason. He possesses a fluid running style and sufficient speed, but can he become a consistent pounder between the tackles?
Last season he was utilized more as a utility back with multiple roles. Johnson rushed for 208 yards and added 159 receiving yards from 66 offensive touches. He will be expected to have anywhere from 200-300 offensive touches this upcoming season as a true sophomore. If he reaches 250 or more touches in 2016, it will be a good sign he remained healthy for the most part and Auburn was able to obtain the most of his talent.
The sleeper among the group might be sophomore Kamryn Pettway. A fullback last season, he is back in the spotlight of being a running back again. There isn’t much flash in his running style, but Pettway will give Auburn a very physical element in its running game. He appears to be a bigger and more physical version of Peyton Barber, with better vision and north-south, one-cut running style. He won’t break many 50-yard runs, but he will be a full load between the tackles with enough finesse to be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
Pettway’s running style is similar to former Auburn Tiger James Bostic and Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon. Taking reps at the running back position since spring, Pettway will likely see plenty of action early in the season. Having played in the offense last season he will have an early advantage in the backfield when it comes to experience.
Kamryn Pettway is shown in action during the 2016 A-Day Game.
True freshman Malik Miller was able to graduate early from high school to participate in Auburn’s spring practice. His January arrival on the Plains was beneficial for his growth as a collegian, but he remains a true freshman. Because of his size Miller was projected to possibly be a fullback, but Auburn’s current circumstances in 2016 will keep him at running back to provide depth. He is a pure north-south runner, requiring a downhill running scheme to obtain the most of his ability. His lack of experience and physical development at the collegiate level could prevent him from being a major contributor in 2016, but according to his position coach the freshman is having a good preseason. Should the running back position remain healthy for the most part, Miller is probably the third or fourth option coming off the bench.
Former Baylor signee Kam Martin will be a player to watch for in 2016. With his lack of size combined with excellent speed, many project him to take the Onterio McCalebb and Corey Grant role in Auburn’s offense. Martin is already bigger as a true freshman than McCalebb was as senior at Auburn. Martin possesses breakaway speed, but he also has excellent running skills and balance. His ability to go the distance from anywhere on the field will likely allow him to avoid a redshirt in 2016.
In high school Martin was able to generate big plays between the tackles, which makes him more of a complete running back than McCalebb. His running style and exceptional speed are more like former West Virginia running back Noel Devine and former Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk. Martin is a fast running back and not just a fast runner. At 177 pounds he will struggle to be physical enough to perform as an every-down back, but his attributes will allow him to be dangerous inside our outside the tackles.
Losing Robinson could become a blessing in disguise for the offense. Auburn’s coaches must carefully scrutinize the available personnel to establish a pecking order at running back. Establishing a pecking order will create an opportunity for all the running backs and could make the offense less predictable with several backs playing different roles.
In a perfect world Malzahn would like to have a primary back capable of 20-25 carries per game. Johnson and Pettway could become part of a two-man rotation early on in the season with the expectation of one creating separation from the other. If this separation fails to materialize we could see more of a running by committee concept.Running backs coach Tim Horton said he likes his team’s options, primarily because of the work ethic of those involved.