Kerryon Johnson (above) is shown in action vs. Arkansas State.
Auburn, Ala.--While the questions at the quarterback position were the biggest issue in the preseason, one of the concerns for the Auburn Tigers was at running back after losing Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson from a year ago.
Counting on Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway to carry the load for the Tigers this year, Coach Gus Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee and the rest of the Auburn offensive coaches didn’t know what to expect this season. Through four games they have their answer.
Carrying the ball 78 times for 371 yards and four touchdowns, Johnson has been one of the most productive backs in the SEC so far in 2016. Seventh in the league in rushing, the sophomore was perhaps at his best against LSU last Saturday night.
Facing one of the most physical defenses in the country, Johnson carried the ball 22 times for 93 yards and was running over and through LSU defenders time and time again. That along with the way Pettway has played so far has Malzahn feeling very good about the position heading into this week’s game against Louisiana-Monroe.
"I think he answered the questions of durability, and if people think he's tough enough," Lashlee said of Johnson. "He ran like an Auburn running back. That drive before the half he ran the safety over. A couple of things we threw the ball out to him in the flat and we made some guys miss. He ran hard. He ran extremely hard, and that's what really stood out. There were a couple of times he punished some guys. He's the guy that you think will make people miss, but he's done a really good job of running downhill. I think he and Kamryn have really complemented each other very well."
Malzahn agrees about Johnson's play in the 18-13 victory over LSU.
“As far as our running backs were concerned, I thought Kerryon Johnson was a full-grown man,” Malzahn said. “He was as physical as I’ve ever seen him. He ran with passion and he broke tackles. They have a lot of guys who can really tackle.
“I thought it was a really physical game," Malzahn added. "There were a lot of questions concerning our running back position at the beginning of the year, but I think those question marks have been answered through these four games.”
Something that has yet to be answered is just how well the offensive line is going to come together this season. Doing different things up front last week against LSU and deciding not to pull the guards very much because of the speed on the other side of the ball, Malzahn said it’s all about adjusting from the week to week.
“The other night we really primarily stuck with the inside zone and we felt like that was the best thing for us,” he said. “They were playing some odd front and sometimes in the gap game. When they play odd, you can’t get to the backside backer when you pull through, and we were concerned about that and we were right.
“Each week is a little bit different, but that was really the main reason. Sometimes in odd front you can get to the backside (linebacker) but their personnel was really strong. That was one of the best defenses that we’ve faced, if not the best defense we’ve faced.”
That won’t be the case this weekend with the Warhawks coming into Jordan-Hare Stadium ranked 126th out of 128 teams in the country in rushing defense, allowing 290.7 yards per game on the ground. Giving up 239 to Southern, 288 to Oklahoma and 345 to Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Monroe’s defense comes along at just the right time for the Tigers with Pettway slowed after suffering an injury against LSU. That makes the redshirt sophomore questionable for Saturday's game.
“It’s nothing major, It’s a bruised quad," Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee said after Wednesday evening's practice. "He has been out there in pads both days and we’re just taking it day by day right now.”
Because of that this weekend may be the time to get freshmen Kameron Martin and Malik Miller more involved. Combining for just 11 carries and 41 yards so far this year, both have done some good things so far and Malzahn said you could see more of them moving forward.
Malik Miller joined the Tigers in January as an early graduate from Madison Academy.
“We feel that they are in good spots,” Malzahn said. “They’ve been mainly getting the number two reps in practice for four weeks. They got some playing time in game two and our confidence in them has been growing. They’re both very talented. If called upon, we expect them to do well.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.CDT and can be seen on the SEC Network alternate channel.