After the news a few weeks ago that Dontavious Russell was staying for his senior year in 2018, we got the word last night of our first early entry to the NFL Draft in running back Kerryon Johnson. Apparently, his announcement opened the floodgates, and cornerback Carlton Davis made the proclamation as well as running back Kam Pettway and buck linebacker Jeff Holland.
I think most Auburn fans figured that we were going to lose Carlton Davis after the season he had, being named an All-American by Sports Illustrated. Davis finished his career at Auburn with 136 tackles, four interceptions, and 28 pass breakups over the course of three seasons. Maybe his best year, however, came as a freshman in 2015 when he helped complete a thin secondary and got a lot of work. He picked off three passes and recorded 56 tackles that season and turned into the shutdown corner he is today.
We were fairly certain to lose Jeff Holland as well, the dominant pass rusher who dazzled us all with his 9.5 sacks and constant backfield hurrying, not to mention his Sensei Mud alter ego. He was a ton of fun and I think he can be a Carl Lawson type guy with his first impact in the NFL. I don’t expect him to get drafted super high, but someone’s going to get a steal when they take him.
It’s with a sadder heart that we bid goodbye to Kerryon Johnson, who finished a three-year career by working his way to the top. After signing with Auburn in 2015, he was part of a running back class that included Jovon Robinson, who was expected to be the guy in the backfield for the Tigers. After Robinson’s solid finish to the 2015 season, during which Kerryon ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns in a backup role, it was expected that the returning players would make for a fantastic backfield in 2016. Then Robinson got kicked off the team leading up to the season.
Kerryon and Kam Pettway took the reins last year at tailback, with Kerryon getting more of the early work before Gus Malzahn figured out how to use Pettway, and Kerryon finished last season with 895 rushing yards and eleven touchdowns. Pettway was expected to be the featured back heading into 2017, but a suspension before the opener against Georgia Southern pushed Johnson into the starting role.
Against the Eagles, he ran for 136 yards in a little more than a quarter before tweaking a hamstring and missing the next two games against Clemson and Mercer. If we had KJ in Death Valley, I believe we win that game. He turned out to be an incredibly important cog to the Auburn offense, and we saw the difference in effectiveness when he wasn’t on the field.
Upon his return, he didn’t dazzle in terms of rushing yardage, but he scored five touchdowns on the ground against Missouri. After that, he rattled off 100-yard games in seven of the next games, with the lone exception being at Arkansas. Those outputs included 204 yards against Ole Miss, 156 at LSU, 145 against Texas A&M, 167 at home against #1 Georgia, and 104 against #1 Alabama.
It was enough to win him the SEC Offensive Player of the Year award, and first-team All-SEC honors this season. He’s a fantastic character, and one of the most beloved Auburn players in school history, and he’ll be dearly missed.
All in all, Kerryon Johnson ran for 2494 yards in three seasons with 32 touchdowns, and he caught another 478 yards worth of passes with another two scores for nearly 3000 total yards in his career and 34 touchdowns.
His backfield mate for portions of the past two seasons, Kam Pettway, will also be missed, but that’s a partial case of “what could have been”. Pettway rumbled through SEC defenses last year on the way to a 1229-yard season with seven touchdowns. He had seven 100-yard games out of the nine in which he appeared, and made the offense purr when he was in. This year, his early suspension seemed to take his year off track, but he came back and put up three touchdowns at Arkansas. Auburn fans thought we were off and running with one of the strongest one-two combinations in the country.
However, the news came out that Pettway had broken his shoulder blade in the win in Fayetteville, and he didn’t play another down in the navy and orange, finishing his career with 1529 yards and 13 touchdowns over three years. Amid rumors that he was “unwelcome” at Auburn during bowl prep, it’s not tough to see why he decided to head to the NFL early. It’s maddening when these kinds of things happen, but Pettway gave us good work while he was here, and we’ll wish him the best of luck along with Davis and Johnson in the NFL.
For Auburn looking ahead, the running back situation is obviously the big question as we turn toward 2018. Spring practice will be watched like a hawk by Auburn fans across the board as we wait for someone to step up to carry the rock. Kam Martin, Devan Barrett, Malik Miller, Asa Martin, Jatarvious Whitlow, and Shaun Shivers are all candidates, but we’ll have to see who steps up.
Gus Malzahn will find someone that can gain 1000 yards, as he’s done pretty much every year that he’s been on the Plains. He made Tre Mason, Kam Pettway, and Kerryon Johnson into every-down backs, and he’ll do it with one of the next guys in line as well.
Best of luck to our early entrants to the draft! War Eagle!