Auburn University

Led by experience, Auburn’s running game could be the key to success in 2019

‘Let’s go’ Auburn players gather on field at Superdome for Sugar Bowl

Auburn safety Tray Matthews gathered players for a pregame huddle midfield at the Superdome. The Tigers play Oklahoma Monday night in the annual New Year's Six game.
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Auburn safety Tray Matthews gathered players for a pregame huddle midfield at the Superdome. The Tigers play Oklahoma Monday night in the annual New Year's Six game.

A lot has been made of the lack of experience in Auburn’s quarterback room, and the severe lack of any real rushing attack demonstrated by the 2018 Tigers. And that’s fairly justified — quarterback is an important position in any offense, and Auburn’s rushing attack was nowhere near the norm observers of head coach Gus Malzahn’s Tigers have come to expect.

Now, the Tigers’ running backs and offensive linemen enter 2019 boasting experience, more so than perhaps any other position groups on the team.

First, let’s look at just what exactly went wrong a season ago.

Auburn did not have a player in the top-40 rushing leaders last season. The Tigers finished behind teams like Iowa, Wake Forest and Arizona State in total rushing yards. JaTarvious Whitlow led the Tigers with 787 yards (six touchdowns), followed by Kam Martin’s 458 yards.

2018 was the first time since Gus Malzahn took the head coaching job that the Tigers did not finish with a 1,000-yard rusher, but this was not entirely due to guys like Whitlow and Martin being, well, not good enough.

Injuries and offensive-line inconsistencies both played a major part in the Tigers’ struggles on the ground. Linemen Jack Driscoll and Prince Tega Wanogho suffered lower-body injuries against Southern Miss. Austin Troxell lasted just one drive before also picking up an injury.

Whitlow also picked up a shoulder knock against Southern Miss.

Inconsistency on the line was an issue: The Tigers ranked 32nd in tackles for loss surrendered a season ago (5.15 per game) and 39th in sacks allowed (1.8 per game).

The issues that plagued last season’s Tigers offense are, however, fixable, and there’s enough reason for optimism.

The Tigers return five seniors from last season’s offensive line: Wanogho, Driscoll, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton and Bailey Sharp.

On the running-back side of things, the Tigers return both Whitlow and Martin, and boast two talented younger players: Harold Joiner and D.J. Williams.

Worst-case scenario: 2018 happens. OK, seriously.

Injuries mount up and the same issues that plagued the running game a season ago, flare up again. That makes for another rough season for the Tigers’ running backs, another sub-1,000 rushing yard year, and much more pressure on the Tigers’ first-year signal-caller, whoever that may be.

Best-case scenario: Experience translates into results as the Tigers break the 1,000-yard rushing mark again. The offensive line stays mostly healthy, which allows Whitlow and Martin to have solid seasons. An Auburn running back finishes with more than six rushing scores.

Auburn’s experienced rushing attack takes much of the pressure off whoever becomes the starting quarterback.

Keep up with the Ledger-Enquirer’s coverage of Auburn athletics here, and follow along on Twitter (@WarEagleExtra) and Facebook.

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Macon Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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