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Running Back U at it again in 2017

Auburn returns nearly every rushing yard it gained in 2016

NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

For the entirety of Gus Malzahn’s time at Auburn, whether as an offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011 or as a head coach, the Tigers have been one of the best rushing teams in the country. Let’s look at the numbers

Auburn Rushing Numbers with Gus Malzahn

Year Attempts Yards Yards per Game Rank in SEC by YPG
Year Attempts Yards Yards per Game Rank in SEC by YPG
2009 550 2756 212 4
2010 652 3987 284.8 1
2011 536 2370 182.3 4
2013 729 4596 328.3 1
2014 607 3321 255.5 2
2015 586 2552 196.3 5
2016 645 3527 271.3 1

Never worse than fifth in the conference. Led the conference 3 times. Led the nation once (2013). Even if Auburn is slightly more pass happy under Chip Lindsey, the heartbeat of this team is on the ground.

In those seasons, Auburn had their leading rusher* return just twice, and both of those seasons had returning leaders that weren’t coached by Malzahn the year before (Ben Tate in 2009 and Tre Mason in 2013). This year will be the first time at Auburn that Malzahn has coached his own leading rusher from the previous season. So what does Auburn have coming back?

Key Returnees (2016 stats rushing, receiving, and passing)

Kamryn Pettway - 209 carries, 1224 yards, 7 TDs; 2 catches, 14 yards
Kerryon Johnson - 182 carries, 895 yards, 11 TDs; 17 catches, 125 yards; 3 of 3, 11 yards, 1 TD
Kam Martin - 44 carries, 320 yards, 3 TDs; 2 catches, 52 yards
Malik Miller - 16 carries, 69 yards, 1 TD (MEDICAL REDSHIRT)
Chandler Cox - 7 carries, 15 yards, 1 TD; 4 catches, 41 yards; 1 of 2, -3 yards, 1 INT

Pettway extended Auburn’s streak of 1000-yard rushers (every year since 2009, and there were two in 2010 and 2013). He and Johnson should lead the way again in 2017. Pettway’s numbers would have been even better without injuries, and to be fair misuse prior to the Texas A&M game. Johnson managed to only miss one game, but it happened to be the best team rushing performance of the year, a 543-yard, 9.5 yards per carry, 7 touchdown romp through Arkansas**. He and Martin should provide Lindsey with solid passing options out of the backfield as well. Miller showed promise early in the season, but re-aggravated an ankle injury from high school that knocked him out for the season after the ULM game.

Chandler Cox is the only returning fullback with any numbers. His rushing numbers were a bit hampered by some obvious playcalls (almost all of his carries were either Cox-Cat or the quick pitch to the heavy side of the formation), but he was very effective as a receiver. Cox is a very versatile piece that hopefully will see some better opportunities in Chip Lindsey’s system.

Key Losses (2016 numbers included)

Stanton Truitt - 31 carries, 187 yards, 2 TDs; 7 catches, 100 yards, 1 TD

Truitt began to come into his own as an all-purpose threat in the middle of the season, with his best game coming in the win over Arkansas with 123 yards from scrimmage and all 3 of his touchdowns. He was supposed to be a major piece of the game plan for the Georgia game, but was injured after just three touches. Truitt had 2 years of eligibility remaining, but decided to transfer to North Carolina after earning his diploma. Other than my personal hatred for the Tar Heels***, I wish Truitt the best.


Devan Barrett - 4 star Running Back, Tampa, FL
JaTarvious Whitlow - 3 star Athlete, LaFayette, AL

With most of the talent returning, running back was not a huge position of need for Auburn in the 2017 cycle. They got a good one in Barrett, and were happy to focus on other areas of need. Whitlow may see time at RB, but is officially listed as a wide receiver.

Projected Depth Chart

Running Back Depth Chart

Power Back Combo Back Fullback
Power Back Combo Back Fullback
Kamryn Pettway Kerryon Johnson Chandler Cox
Kerryon Johnson Kam Martin Robert Muschamp
Malik Miller Chandler Cox
CJ Tolbert Devan Barrett/JaTarvious Whitlow

Lindsey’s offense at Arizona State tended to use two running backs pretty heavily. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Pettway caught several more passes in 2017, I think Johnson and Martin will be used much more in the passing game than last year. I’m betting that the substitutions are a bit situational and based on package rather than a linear group.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Devan Barrett takes a redshirt year. If Whitlow can handle playing both running back and wide receiver, it makes more sense to give Barrett a year to hit the weight room and learn the system.

Overall, if Auburn’s passing game improves, Pettway’s yards per carry numbers could jump up as well. If not for a freak injury as he cruised to a clinching touchdown against Vanderbilt, Pettway could have easily gone over 1400 yards for the year. I don’t know if he’ll get that number this year, but he may be more efficient.

I expect a big year for Johnson. Lindsey’s use of running backs as receivers in space should really complement his skill-set. While he may not get 1000 yards rushing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hit 1500 all-purpose yards (he had 1287 last year: 895 rushing, 125 receiving, and 267 on kick returns).

All in all, Auburn has the best returning lineup at running back in Malzahn’s time at Auburn. If the passing game truly improves under Chip Lindsey, this is a very talented group that could have gaping running lanes in 2017.

*-In fairness, Malzahn did have his best runner at the RB position come back in 2011, but Cam Newton was the leading rusher in 2010.
**-I just think “against” is the wrong preposition there. It implies Arkansas provided opposition.
***-UNC fans:basketball::Alabama fans:football. The “never went there, never went to a game there, buy the shirt at Wal-Mart” aspect is honestly worse in NC.