Auburn closed out a convincing 31-10 win in the Birmingham Bowl over Memphis hoping the performance was a sign of things to come.
The Tigers’ backfield shined in one of the best all-around performances of the season.
Starting running back Jovon Robinson won MVP honors against his hometown team with a game-high 126 yards and touchdown.
Peyton Barber had a more modest day on the field, but with 40 yards on 11 carries managed to give the program a 1,000-yard rusher for the seventh straight season. Roc Thomas, five carries for 29 yards, and Kerryon Johnson, 61 total yards of offense, also contributed.
All four players were expected to return and make Auburn’s backfield one of the best in the country.
Auburn opened fall camp less than seven months later with only one of the student-athletes on its roster. Barber entered the NFL draft as an underclassman in January with Thomas following his teammate’s lead out the door in May. The Oxford native decided to transfer back home to play for Jacksonville State.
The final domino fell Wednesday before practice with Robinson’s dismissal.
Malzahn isn’t expressing any doubts about Auburn’s ability to reshuffle the deck at running back.
During his press conference Wednesday, he confidently pointed to his track record as an offensive coordinator and head coach in explaining why the Tigers’ running game won’t take a step backward this fall.
“We’ve been one of the better rushing teams in our league for six years, and we’ll continue to be that,” Malzahn said.
Auburn hasn’t finished worse than 35th in the country in rushing offense during Malzahn’s six years with the program. The Tigers had the top rushing team in the country in 2013 (328 yards per game) and had another top 10 finish in 2010.
Three of Malzahn’s starting running backs (Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Ben Tate) were drafted coming out of Auburn while two others are on current NFL rosters (Corey Grant, Peyton Barber).
Auburn players believe in their coach’s resume and the talent on the roster.
“I really have a lot of faith in our backfield. That's not really one of my worries, because I know we're going to be able to run the ball,” Auburn offensive lineman Austin Golson said.
Wide receiver Marcus Davis was the most willing of the players Auburn made available to the media Wednesday to discuss Robinson and compliment the back’s talent, but he still fell in line with Malzahn’s optimistic message.
“Jovon was a great player but we have a lot of great running backs that I feel like are going to do a job and they’re going to be ready to step up,” Auburn wide receiver Marcus Davis said. “You have KJ, Kamryn Pettway is a guy that’s really been eye-opening since the spring time and we just have a lot of different guys that are willing to step up. I think that’s where we’re going to go from there.”
Stay calm and Kerryon?
Any hope Kerryon Johnson had in slowly getting back to the grind vanished Wednesday. Johnson missed all but Auburn’s final spring practice recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
The running back spent the first day of fall practice taking reps with the first team offense.
“We're very confident in him,” Malzahn said. “He's put on about 20 pounds. He's a guy that we've recruited to be a marquee back. He's got a great opportunity now. He's in a good spot.”
Malzahn hoped to take advantage of Johnson’s versatility this season — he was Auburn’s wildcat quarterback last year, returned kicks and was a capable receiver out of the backfield — a plan the coach outlined at SEC Media Days.
“Kerryon Johnson has got a chance to be one of the most versatile guys in the league,” Malzahn said. “His best days are to come.”
Wednesday’s news could shift Johnson from a multi-faceted role to a more traditional one.
“I think he could be one of the best in the SEC,” Golson said. “He proved last year that he's elusive and stuff. Like I said, he wasn't here this spring, but I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he'll do great for us this year.”
Johnson finished with 753 all-purpose yards as a true freshman with 208 yards and three touchdowns coming on the ground.
His most memorable game came midway through the season on the road at Kentucky where he scored his first career touchdown helped Auburn escape with a 30-27 win. Johnson caught one pass for 14 yards, ran the ball nine times for a career-high 36 yards and returned four kicks for 111 yards.
“He’s got great instincts,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said last year. “Some guys, you teach them certain things one time and they get it, just naturally know how to do it. He’s just one of those guys, we made a concerted effort Thursday (against Kentucky) night to get him on the field more and we did, and I think that was good for us.”
Johnson showed he has the right mindset for the job following a demoralizing 45-21 loss to LSU.
“In the SEC at Auburn? You better be feeling like you are playing for your job when you always got another guy who is just going to step up and take it,” Johnson said of a potential roster shakeup. “You got to come out everyday with that mentality no matter who you are.”
Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton had hoped for more time to develop Johnson into a back capable of handling a heavier workload.
“I don’t know if missing the field time hurts as much as missing the weight room time because we would like him to become a more physical and more developed player that could take those 20-25 carries a game, if he had to,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said in May.
Horton will have to accelerate those plans as Auburn works to replace more than 80 percent of its production in the backfield.
Johnson was off to a good start weighing in this summer 16 pounds heavier than his playing weight of 195 pounds last year.
“When you recruit you have a good idea,” Malzahn said. “We recruited him expecting him to be a feature back. We're very confident he can do that.”
Next man up
Auburn worked this spring to transition fullbacks Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox into dual roles at tailback.
Malzahn revisited the decision Wednesday in praising the team’s depth at running back despite losing Robinson.
“It was very important,” Malzahn said. “This summer it was primarily all tailback when they worked on their own. Chandler Cox is a guy you saw in the spring game have a long run from the tailback position so he gives us some depth there too.”
It helps that both Pettway and Cox thrived at running back in high school.
Pettway ran for 1,400 yards as a senior for Prattville High School while Cox was one of Apopka High School’s three 1,000-yard rushers to help the Florida program win a state title.
Freshmen Malik Miller and Kam Martin will also get a legitimate shot at early playing time. Horton openly discussed the possibility of redshirting Miller before Thomas transferred, but now both first year players could be counted on to contribute.
“We’ve had success with freshmen running backs before, and as a matter of fact, our history shows that we’ve had quite a bit of success with our freshman running backs,” Malzahn said. “We have a system that I’d say is running back-friendly, so those true freshmen have a chance to show what they can do.”
Malzahn also extended a challenge to the rest of the offense.
“I feel good about where we're at,” Malzahn said. “It's a great opportunity for these other guys. I feel very good and I feel like people will step up. I think people will step up around the running back position too.”