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The Running Backs - Who’s Up Next?

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Auburn has a history of being Running Back U. Who’s going to take on that mantle in 2018?

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since Nick Marshall, Auburn has a returning quarterback that they are comfortable with. It’s a great feeling knowing we can trust the guy behind center; but, because nothing is ever perfect, Auburn seems to be hitting a hard reset on the running back position after losing both Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway to the NFL. The Tigers have a crowded backfield this year, with as many as five or six guys vying for carries. With A-Day coming up this weekend, this might be the position battle I’m most looking forward to.

The interesting thing to note is that even though there is a host of talent in the backfield, it is extremely likely that just one of them will turn into a feature back this season. Looking at Gus Malzahn offenses since 2013, there is only one season where one running back didn’t have at least 40% of the carries*. When adjusting to look at only running back carries (sorry, Nick Marshall), the numbers are even more drastic. Besides Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson splitting carries due to injuries at different points in the season, Gus has had one running back take at least 50% of the overall RB touches in each year.

Leading Rusher Among Running Backs

Year Player Carries Yards TDs % of RB Carries
Year Player Carries Yards TDs % of RB Carries
2017 Kerryon Johnson 285 1391 18 59%
2016 Kamryn Pettway 209 1224 7 42%
2015 Peyton Barber 238 1017 13 52%
2014 Cameron Artis-Payne 303 1608 13 73%
2013 Tre Mason 317 1816 23 64%

With all of that in mind, who is going to be the 1,000-yard guy this year? Let’s take a look.

Kam Martin (Jr., 5’ 10”, 180 lbs):

Based off of pure experience, Kam is the favorite to get more touches this year. The junior from Houston has had 118 carries for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns over the last two years, and he has the speed to burn you if he gets a hole. There are legitimate questions as to if he could hold up as a primary running back over the course of the season, and his running style (to my untrained eye) doesn’t lend itself to being a consistent, every-down back. However, he is a great guy to give 10 or so second half carries to if Auburn’s line has been getting a good push, because once he hits a hole, it seems like he springs for 5-8 yards like its nothing.

Malik Miller (RS So., 5’ 11”, 225 lbs):

To me, Malik Miller is a big wild card this year. The powerful back only accrued 16 carries in 2016 before suffering a knee injury (causing him to redshirt), and despite getting another 34 carries in 2017, I don’t think we’ve actually seen what Miller has to offer yet. Despite not being a big open field threat, he is really difficult to bring down, and he seems like a sure bet to pick up a few yards when you need it. As with Kam Martin, though, I don’t think he is the guy Gus is going to want to lean on for 250+ carries this year.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Devan Barrett (So., 6’ 0”, 185 lbs.):

As talented as Devan Barrett is, nothing frustrated me more last season than the way he was used. All you had to do was look for #5 in the backfield, and you knew it was going to be a swing pass. I really thought he could have done well getting more carries during our running back injury crisis at the end of last season, but alas, he only ended up with 14 carries for 79 yards (still good for 5.5+ ypc). Barrett has the speed and the moves to play in the open field, and I think A-Day will be a decent litmus for how Auburn plans to use him this season. Do they give him the chance to run the ball traditionally, or does he stick with swings, screens, and possibly even some WR thanks to the Hastings and Stove injuries?

JaTarvious Whitlow (RS Fr., 6’ 0”, 215 lbs):

Ah yes, Boobee (it’s what he goes by and it’s what we’re going to call him) Whitlow, the talk of spring practice. If what some of the other players are saying is true, Boobie could end up as one of the best running backs Auburn has had in some time, and that’s saying something for a program with three backs in the NFL and two more on their way. According to Marquell Harrell, some of his runs this spring have been “something like you see on Madden”. Of course, you should probably take his teammate’s scouting reports with a grain of salt, but the local LaFayette, AL product has put everyone on notice that he’s ready for a big 2018. The main knock I’ve heard on him is that sometimes he still needs to learn how to take the 2 yard gain instead of reversing field looking for the home-run, because he occasionally runs himself into negative plays. The talent is real, though, and I think he can deliver on his hype this fall.

Oh, and just a reminder, the dude passed for 2,300 yards his senior year of high school as well.

Asa Martin (Fr., 5’ 11”, 200 lbs):

When Martin committed to Auburn, it was a general consensus that he was a big get for the Tigers in this class. Now, as an early enrollee, the freshman from Courtland, AL is every bit in contention for meaningful carries this season. Asa might be the most well-rounded back in the group, and his potential is huge if he adjusts to power-conference college football well. Take a look at what AUNerd said about him when he signed, and watch some of his tape from his senior year.

Unfortunately, Gus has never been on playing freshman running backs in more than just a package here or there, a la Devan Barrett last season. Look for him to see the field, but I wouldn’t count on him getting more than a few carries per game this year.

Final Thoughts:

This really is a pretty wide open competition this season, and I’m not sure anybody (coaches included) knows who is going to be starting in Mercedes-Benz come September. Ultimately, I think Gus and Chip will use the first two games to find out who really understands the system the best, and come LSU in week 3, I think we will see someone take the reigns as a feature back.

If you’re asking me today who that’s going to be? Give me Boobee.