Gus Malzahn is entering his 6th year as Auburn’s head football coach. The previous five seasons have all produced a 1,000 yard rusher (the streak runs all the way to 2009). Interestingly, each of those five seasons have featured a different running back crossing the century mark:
- 2013 - Tre Mason 1,816 yds
- 2014 - Cameron Artis-Payne 1,608 yds
- 2015 - Peyton Barber 1,017 yds
- 2016 - Kamryn Pettway 1,224 yds
- 2017 - Kerryon Johnson 1,391 yds
So while replacing Johnson’s production will obviously be difficult, finding a new bellcow is something Gus has done each season successfully. So the better question might be WHO rushes for 1,000 yards, not if?
The leader in the clubhouse as we head to fall camp is Kam Martin. The former 4* back out of Port Arthur, TX signed with Auburn after the Briles bomb dropped in Waco. In his first two seasons, Martin didn’t see many meaningful snaps though did have a breakout showing against Georgia Southern last season when Kerryon Johnson went down. He rushed for 136 yards on only 14 carries and scored a touchdown. But his use became sporadic after a promising opener. Martin finished the year with 74 carries 453 yards and two touchdowns. So 30% of his total yardage came in one game.
But he has more experience than anyone else on campus. He came into spring practice as the presumptive favorite and left with the #1 spot firmly in hand. However, I get the feeling that many Auburn fans aren’t yet sold on the Texas native as the Tigers RB answer next season. So I decided to go back and rewatch all of his snaps from last year to see if I can shed any light, good or bad, on the Kam Martin debate.
Warning, it may seem like I am talking like I know a lot of things but it’s important to understand
Cool? Let’s do this thing.
Let’s go ahead and talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to Kam Martin being Auburn’s leading rusher in 2018: his size. At 5’10” 193 lbs, Martin would be the smallest tailback to ever carry the load for Gus Malzahn. Going all the way back to his first year as OC at Arkansas in 2006, the average size of Malzahn’s leading rushers (excluding QBs) has been somewhere between 5’11”-6’0” and 210 lbs. In fact, David Oku is the only #1 tailback under Malzahn to weigh under 200 lbs at 195.
So this is obviously new territory for Gus. Even Tim Horton admitted that Martin’s size is a concern heading into the season:
“The one thing that I do know about the running backs that we’ve had in the past is they’ve all been 210 pounds, 215 pounds,” Horton said. “Well, Kam Martin is 195. And so I don’t know that answer. I think, and we’ve wanted to do this the last couple of years but it just hasn’t worked out, is we want to play more than one guy.
The good news is Martin has bulked up this offseason and seems to be putting the time in to ensure he’s got the physique to handle the pounding (phrasing?). But the truth is we won’t really know the answer to this question until he actually takes the field and is asked to carry the ball 20+ times in multiple games against SEC competition.
I mean we could rotate him with other some of the other talented backs but where’s the fun in that?
Unsurprisingly, Martin is a very different running back than Kerryon Johnson. Johnson was Mr Patient. He would patiently wait for the play to develop, quickly diagnose where the weakness was in the defense, then power his way through whichever hole he chose. Johnson also had an incredible combination of lateral quickness and upper body strength that consistently allowed him to either make the first man miss or deliver a devastating stiffarm that let him break free for an extra 5+ yards.
Martin, on the other hand, attacks the line of scrimmage. He’s looking for the first sliver of daylight and then he’s hitting that hole full throttle.
What really jumped out when rewatching Martin from last year is just how quickly he plays the game. Not only from a physical standpoint but from the mental side as well. Here’s one example that jumped out to me.
Auburn’s running their bread and butter “Power” on this play and Martin is supposed to follow his pulling guard through the B gap. But watch his footwork. In two steps, he quickly cuts to his right, away from an unblocked defender and towards his intended gap. Two steps later, he quickly cuts back as he sees a ULM linebacker getting around his lead blocker. Martin takes just a sharp enough angle to run through the arm tackle while still perfectly positioning himself between the two blocks of his offensive lineman. You then see the explosiveness as Martin bounces around Nate Craig-Myers’s block and then accelerates forward for the big gain. Just beautiful to watch.
Martin did this time and time again on tape. He consistently demonstrated the ability to quickly read his blocks and find a just big enough a hole to pop through. There’s a noticeable difference in how quickly plays unfold when Martin is in the game compared to Kerryon.
His speed is what stood out early in his career. But while speed is no doubt a big piece of his game, I am not sure if I would classify him as a guy with “elite speed”. He’s definitely fast but he didn’t often run away from defenders. In fact, a few times he got tracked down on plays I thought he might take to the house.
However, I think his ability to get to top speed is incredibly impressive. Martin can accelerate in a hurry and that means that once there’s a hole or a lane, he can quickly blow past the 2nd level and pickup big yards.
The big concern with Martin’s running style is that he’s not all that physical. He’s by no means afraid of contact and he will absolutely lower his shoulder to try and take on a tackler but he’s often ineffective in doing so.
This really shows up near the goal line. To be the every down, every situation guy ala Kerryon Johnson, you have to be able to lower your shoulder and get those dirty yards, especially near the goal line. I didn’t see him do this often though I wanna emphasize he tried. This isn’t the case where a guy is afraid of contact. It’s more that Martin doesn’t have the necessary strength to blow through defenders. Hopefully, another year in the weight room can help him win a few more of these battles.
My other concern is he’s often knocked down by just a DL swipe at his feet. He can run through arm tackles at the 2nd level or when a guy has a bad angle but when one of those big boys up front gets a swipe in, it typically results in a tackle.
Still, I think Martin’s more than capable of being an affective runner in the SEC. He’s a tough, smart back who is always in attack mode. Given Auburn’s personnel, I could see Martin being especially dangerous if Auburn were to spread things out more with 4 wide sets and let Martin run against lighter boxes.
This is pure speculation on my part but it’s the internet so whatever, I will say it. The reason we didn’t see Kam Martin more in 2017 is because he was a terrible pass protector. He wasn’t asked often to stay in the pocket and take on a pass rusher. That in itself should send up warning flags. Often times last year, Auburn would either bring in Malik Miller or bring Kerryon Johnson back in the game when it was a clear passing situation. By my count, Martin only had three true pass protection reps and they weren’t exactly inspiring. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Martin doesn’t have to do much on this play. Braden Smith gets two for one as his powerful block of the stunting DT knocks the big man into the blitzing linebacker. I’m far from an expert on pass protection (well really anything for that matter) but I think you see a flaw in Martin’s technique on this rep that shows up on his final block. He initially gets in a good position with his feet wide and hips low which should allow him to deliver a powerful punch. But right as he is about to make contact, he brings his feet closer and almost stands up on his tip toes. He no longer has any way to deliver much power on this block but thanks the defenders colliding, it ends up not mattering.
This was his most successful rep in pass protection. I would like to see him do a better job of sealing this linebacker to the outside instead of opening a lane up inside to Stidham. I also think again he stands up right as he’s making contact taking any would be pop away from his punch.
Oh boy.... I imagine when most people picture Martin as a pass blocker it’s this play. That’s understandable, this was the last time he was asked to stay in as a pass protector for the rest of the season so it made an impression on the coaching staff as well. Again, I’m not an expert on this stuff but it seems to me Martin’s footwork is ok on this play. He does a good job sliding to adjust to the path of the blitzer and even lands the first punch. But as pointed out in the previous two reps, he seems to stand up right as he’s about to make contact which saps him of any power and makes it easy to lose balance. Both show up on this rep as the blitzer is able to just run right through him and continue on his way to the QB.
Given Martin’s lack of natural strength and size, it’s vitally important he’s technically sound as a blocker. The good news is this is all coachable. Given the fact he left the spring as the #1 guy, I am going to take that as a sign that he has improved this part of his game. But I think it’s fair to have a wait and see attitude until seeing Martin execute in the game. Very interested to see if he stays on the field for clear passing situations or if someone else is rotated in to handle this bulk of the work.
Random other note, hell of a catch by Darius Slayton.
Martin had some ugly drops in 2016, most notably on a wheel route vs Georgia. But I thought he improved that part of his game in 2017. He didn’t get a ton of opportunities but unless I missed a drop, he pretty much converted every single chance last season (he technically dropped one against Georgia Southern but it was a terrible pass by Stidham). But what I really liked when watching him as a receiver was how he kept working to get open. Some backs, cough Kamryn Pettway cough, run their designated route and just stop on the play. Not Martin, he keeps working to get open and that helped Stidham out a couple of times last year.
Given some of the previous concerns about him in pass protection, it might not be a bad idea to just use him as the quick checkdown for Stidham if he’s under pressure. Auburn did a better job using their backs in the passing game last season (Chip Lindsey’s influence) but they could probably do even more in 2018. I will be interested to see if Martin gets more targets than Kerryon did last year because any chance you can get to put Martin in space, you wanna take it.
Honestly, Martin’s biggest threat to carrying the load in 2018 might actually have nothing to do with his skillset and more to do with the young talent behind him. No one generated more buzz during spring than JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow. Most notably, it seemed like his teammates were most fired up about his play. It seems like whenever prompted about who is standing out on the offensive side of the ball Whitlow’s name was one of the first mentioned. He showcased some promising ability in the A-Day game as well.
The other top challenger appears to be early enrollee Asa Martin. He became Auburn’s top running back target after Chip Lindsey’s hire and the Tigers were able to win an intense recruiting battle against the Tide last recruiting cycle. Like Whitlow, Asa is a bigger back with a bit more power than Kam. What I love about Asa’s running style is his ability to move laterally while still keeping his shoulders pointed down field. He’s a smooth back with a deadly combination of quickness and strength.
There’s also fellow veteran Malik Miller though I am not sure how big a threat he is to see meaningful snaps in 2018. The big man has had some ball security issues in the past along with some injuries. But I didn’t see Peyton Barber coming in 2015 or Kamryn Pettway in 2016 so you can’t write anyone off in this race.
Then there are the two biggest wildcards in Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner. The true freshman running backs arrived on campus this summer and will have a chance to try and crack the rotation. There’s been a lot of buzz around how well Shivers has done in summer workouts and he brings some serious speed to the tailback spot. He’s not the biggest dude in the world but is a more powerful back than Kam Martin due to how he’s built. I doubt he ends up Auburn’s top option but I fully expect the Tigers to find ways to get him the football.
Finally, Joiner is really the biggest wildcard of them all. There’s no denying his freak athleticism but there are concerns about his size and running style. Despite being 6’3” 215 lbs, Joiner doesn’t run well behind his pads and is more likely to try and juke a defender than lower his shoulder. Auburn sold him on the idea of playing a hybrid role ala Charles Clay at Tulsa and I suspect we see some plays drawn up specifically to use him in a few games this year. But I think he will get a shot at proving he can carry the rock in fall camp and given his dynamic skillset, I wouldn’t completely count him out of the RB race either.
So after all these words and supposed expert analysis (reminder I really know nothing at all), I obviously have a clear handle on whether or not Kam Martin will be Auburn’s leading rusher in 2018 right? Like I wouldn’t write a 2,000+ word article on this subject then just kinda shrug my shoulders at the end right?
Half the time watching Martin I thought “this is clearly the guy” and the other half it was more like “ehhhhh”. I love his attacking running style and how fast he plays the game. But there are some serious concerns about his ability to stand up to the pounding in the SEC and if he can consistently keep the chains moving. There’s also the tantalizing but very much unproven freshman talent lurking in the shadows. I honestly don’t feel confident taking a stand either way.
What I do know is that Martin was woefully underused last season. In 2018, no matter where he sits on the depth chart, Auburn needs to find a way to get the ball in this man’s hands 10+ times a game. He’s a big play waiting to happen every single time he touches the football. I’ll also admit that I am cheering for Martin to win the job. He seems like a smart kid who has patiently waited his turn these last two years. One of the first questions he was hit with after the UCF game was whether he was considering transferring (gotta love the media) and he answered it beautifully:
“I feel like next year, 2018 is going to be my year to come out and just show everybody what I really can do,” Martin said. “I feel like I have a lot of things I need to work on in the spring to be a complete back. It’s going to happen. It don’t happen overnight, but it’s going to happen.”
From all indications, he’s worked hard at improving his all around game and earned that #1 spot after spring. I fully expect Auburn to give him a chance to win the job in the first weeks of the season but the margin of error will be slim. A fumble or a nagging hamstring could easily open the door for one of his challengers. He won’t have long to prove he’s the guy but he will get a shot which is all you can ask as a competitor.
But if there were ever a year that Auburn embraced a running back by committee approach this would seem to be the year. The Tigers have a list of talented backs, each with some clear strengths and weaknesses. At a minimum, Auburn needs to ensure they get these young guys meaningful snaps so that somebody is ready to carry the load at the end of the season if injuries were to strike. That’s been a problem for the Tigers the past couple of seasons, a problem that needs correcting this season.
Congrats if you’ve made it this far and apologies for taking the easy way out. But all of this is just one man’s opinion and I am interested to see what other’s are thinking. So who do you think is Auburn’s leading rusher in 2018? Lemme know in the comments why you chose who you chose. Football is right around the corner people!
Who leads Auburn in rushing in 2018?
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