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Who will take over for injured Whitlow? Auburn looks to revamp run game vs. Arkansas

Bo Nix stepped into the corner and pinned himself against the concrete wall in the dungeons of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The October heat just outside the ironically-named “Ice Room” engulfed the area and made miserable an already-dreadful afternoon for the eleventh-ranked Auburn Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC), who fell 24-13 to the No. 10 Gators in easily their worst outing of the season.

The freshman threw for just 145 yards and a touchdown against the Gators, and committed his first turnover — he’d finish with three interceptions — since the first half of the Oregon game.

There wasn’t much Nix could really say. The Tigers were closely beaten and the offense was properly embarrassed in front of 90,000-plus spectators. But the Florida loss was less about Nix and more about the rest of the offense, mainly the run game, and what it must do to make life easier for him.

This is where a run game helps. Auburn had none against the Gators, as it mustered just 124 rushing yards and lost starter JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow for four-to-six weeks before all was said and done. Auburn’s offense works best with a run game, and Nix is clearly most comfortable with a run game present. A comfortable Nix and a wide-open rushing attack could lead to better offensive outings than the dud the Tigers laid in Gainesville.

“First of all, you’ve got to be real. We’re not going to Arkansas with one of the best tailbacks in our league — that’s the reality of the thing,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “But we do have confidence in our other guys, and we’ve got confidence in our offensive line. What we’ve been talking about is opportunity; we’ve got some guys that have opportunities.”

Over the bye week, the Tigers used the time to take a step back and address those issues that plagued the offense in Gainesville. That’s easier said than done, though, after just losing top running back and the SEC’s sixth-leading rusher in Whitlow.

It’s unclear who will get the starting nod against the Razorbacks. Whitlow was actually listed on this week’s depth chart as the starter at running back.

The most likely scenario is that Malzahn will rotate the unit, which includes senior Kam Martin, speedy freshman D.J. Williams, Malik Miller, Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner. Martin was the only running back aside from Whitlow who registered a carry against the Gators, though Miller did catch two passes.

“Kam Martin’s played in a lot of big games and played well,” Malzahn said. “(Shaun) Shivers is a guy that we just talked about; he’s capable of making some plays. D.J. Williams, we talked about him, that this will be, really, his first time in prime time to see what he can do, but in the spring, he performed very well.

“Harold Joiner, he’ll have a role, and he has played, specifically in the Texas A&M game and did a solid job. Then Malik Miller’s kind of our specialized guy. So, we’re carrying that group as a group.”

It’s a big group, for sure, but it’s also one that now faces a sizeable amount of pressure following the Florida loss. The Tigers could very much end up as a three-to-four loss team even after a bright start that included wins over Oregon, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. The Tigers ran the ball effectively in each of those games. They did not, obviously, against Florida.

Statistically, Arkansas (2-4, 0-3 SEC) should be the game that the Tigers right the rushing ship: The Razorbacks rank 86th in rushing defense and give up an average of just over 175 rushing yards per game. That’s 11 spots below Mississippi State, a team the Tigers ran for 217 yards against, and a team that gave up 335 passing yards to Nix.

The Razorbacks do not have Florida’s talent and sit 7th in the SEC West. They lost to San Jose State and beat Portland State by just seven points.

But don’t tell Malzahn that.

Malzahn said the Razorbacks “flat got after us last year.” The Razorbacks held Auburn to just 225 total yards and 91 rushing yards in a game the Tigers won 34-3. Arkansas presents a unique challenge, one the Tigers should take seriously.

Starting with the run game.

“I’d be kidding myself to say Boobee Whitlow not going with us is not a big blow,” Malzahn said. “But we have opportunities for those other guys to show what they can do.”

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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 Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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