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Next in line: Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson a ‘full-grown man’ at running back

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson lowers his shoulder at an LSU defender Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson lowers his shoulder at an LSU defender Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson found himself surrounded by LSU defenders the second he took the snap at the 1-yard line before the end of the first half.

The elusive Johnson had nowhere to run on the critical fourth-and-one and was swallowed up by purple and gold jerseys as the offense had to settle for the second of five field goals in the red zone.

Johnson didn’t reference the lack of running room when he discussed the play after the game, he blamed himself for falling short of the goal line.

“When you have it at the 1-yard line it doesn’t matter what the coaches call, doesn’t matter what the defense do, whoever has the ball has to get in,” Johnson said.

It was the same reaction Johnson had on the sideline.

“He was mad at himself,” Lashlee said. “He gave all that he had on that play, but that's the kind of kid he is.”

Lashlee didn’t even see anything Johnson could have done differently to make the play work. Auburn’s new play-caller chalked the missed opportunity up to alignment issues.

“If we had taken our wide receiver and moved him out wider, he would have bounced it and walked in, and felt more comfortable doing that,” Lashlee said. “But that's not on him.”

Johnson’s frustration is an example of the passion driving the Madison Academy alum to be Auburn’s next great back, a role the coaches see him grabbing by the horns.

“He ran like an Auburn running back,” Lashlee said. “That drive before the half he ran the safety over. A couple of things we threw the ball out to him in the flat and we made some guys miss. He ran hard. He ran extremely hard, and that's what really stood out. There were a couple of times he punished some guys.”

The safety in question was LSU’s John Battle.

Johnson bulldozed the defensive back on a run at midfield in the second quarter. The sophomore sent Battle flying backwards on his way to a 13-yard gain for a first down.

“I thought Kerryon Johnson was a full-grown man,” Malzahn said on Tuesday. “He was as physical as I’ve ever seen him. He was running with passion. He broke tackles and they’ve got a lot of guys that can really tackle. It was a real physical game.”

Johnson is the seventh in the SEC in rushing (371 yards) and fourth in the conference with 509 all-purpose yards. The 6-foot-0, 211-pounder accounted for more than 40 percent of Auburn’s offense against LSU with 161 yards of offense (93 rushing).

Questions about Johnson’s durability have all but vanished thanks to his performance through the first four weeks of the season.

With fellow starting running back Kamryn Pettway nursing a bruised quad in the second half against LSU, Johnson carried the ball 13 times. He has touched the ball at least 16 times each game this season.

“I think he answered the questions of durability, and if people think he's tough enough,” Lashlee said.