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Ode to Kerryon Johnson

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Yet another fantastic season that we’ll remember for years to come.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn
Levitating above the expectations.
Montgomery Advertiser-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest.

I never really thought that Kerryon Johnson had much potential when he signed with Auburn.

I thought he’d be a guy that got a moment or two, and ended up being a fan favorite, but that he’d be overshadowed by other guys like Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson. I saw him as more of a Kodi Burns type of player. Unselfish, well-liked, a solid player, but never a guy that would tear up the field.

Through his first season as a freshman in 2015, my prediction was somewhat verified. Kerryon Johnson ran for just 208 yards on 52 carries (exactly 4.0 yards per carry). His best game at tailback came against Kentucky when he ran for 36 yards and scored one of his three touchdowns on the year. I didn’t really see much of a future for him sitting behind Robinson.

Then Jovon was suddenly no longer a part of the team. 2016 began with the Tigers not expecting much, and opening with the defending runner-ups at home didn’t really seem like the best way to get rolling. However, KJ decided to prove me wrong. Running against that stingy Clemson front, he went for 94 yards and a touchdown, then followed it up with his first 100-yard performance against Arkansas State the next week. He again churned out hard-earned yardage in a victory over LSU that started the six-game win streak that Auburn enjoyed during the 2016 season.

Unfortunately, his resurgence came along with Kamryn Pettway’s arrival as well, and Pettway became the more dependable back during the successful portion of last year. Johnson has never really been the most durable guy, and as he started 2017 with some high hopes, we got to see him get cut down in the first half of a fantastic debut.

He ran for 136 yards against Georgia Southern on just 16 carries, but came up lame with what looked like a hamstring injury on another big run, and he’d be out for the next two games. Imagine if he’d been around for those two contests, Auburn may have very well beaten Clemson, instead of falling 14-6 in Death Valley, and then we likely wouldn’t have been sweating in the fourth quarter against Mercer.

KJ came back for Auburn’s second road game of the year as the Tigers visited Missouri, and made up for lost time. Just 48 rushing yards, but that’s because most of the carries came near the goal line and he ended the day with five touchdowns.

The next week against Mississippi State he scored three more, and got his second 100-yard game of the year.

Then he did it again with three more touchdowns on Ole Miss, and a 200-yard rushing day as well.

Auburn was rolling as we hit Baton Rouge, and despite the loss, KJ wasn’t the issue, posting 156 yards and a touchdown at Tiger Stadium. Over the next five games, two of which came against top-ranked and undefeated teams, Johnson ran for 616 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving, one passing). Auburn shot up to #2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but yet another injury hampered him as the Tigers fell to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. It’s unfortunate for sure, and we don’t know if we would’ve won with a healthy Kerryon, but we can always dream.

Last night, Johnson, whose Heisman campaign admittedly started a little late, finished in the top ten of the Heisman vote.

Baker Mayfield won in an absolute landslide, and a Stanford Cardinal player finishes as the runner-up for the fifth time since 2009, but Kerryon Johnson was the highest-placing player from the SEC. He placed just behind McKenzie Milton, who will be across the field for UCF in a few weeks at the Peach Bowl.

Kerryon Johnson is the type of player that we’ll value for more than his on-field production. He’s the type of guy that we’ve gotten to watch improve and improve and improve (hopefully more if he comes back for another season). He’s the player that we don’t deserve because of the fun and humanity he provides (which is increasingly rare in big-time college football).

We’ve heard a lot over the last week or so about the Heisman’s Mission Statement, part of which goes like this:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust's mission is to ensure the continuation and integrity of this award.

Baker Mayfield was the most electric player for the entire course of the season, and there were tailbacks that ended up with many more opportunities than Kerryon did, but nowhere has anyone put in the #WorkHardWork that Kerryon Johnson has done. He didn’t win the Heisman, and got a nice little consolation prize with the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, but if he comes back, he’ll be a name that everyone will be looking at.

For 2017, he finished this way:

  • 263 carries, 1320 yards (5.0 ypc)
  • 17 rushing touchdowns
  • 23 catches, 188 yards (8.2 ypc)
  • 2 receiving touchdowns
  • 1-1 passing, 3 yards, 1 touchdown

That’s in just eleven games, one of which he was completely hampered.

Taking the numbers from his first ten games of the year, when he was completely healthy, let’s spread that out over thirteen games (the number he would’ve played before the Heisman). It looks pretty good.

He would’ve had 325 carries for 1658 yards (5.1 ypc) and 22 touchdowns. Even if the receiving numbers stayed the same, that’s Heisman-worthy.

I don’t know what will happen in the offseason. I don’t know if Kerryon Johnson will decide that he’s taken too much of a beating and wants to take his talents to the next level while he’s still got time. I don’t know if he’ll come back in pursuit of a championship. With Jarrett Stidham and a ton of his buddies on offense returning, it could be a fantastic year in 2018 with an even more potent attack.

Either way, whatever he decides to do, I was wrong about Kerryon Johnson way back when he signed with Auburn. And I’m damn glad I was.

War Eagle.