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Countdown to kickoff: Could a running back by committee approach be in Auburn’s future?

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson smiles at the program's annual Fan Day.
Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson smiles at the program's annual Fan Day. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Editor’s note: T-minus 11 days (Five!) and counting until Auburn opens the season against Clemson on Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Check back every morning as we break down the roster, profile key players and look at unanswered questions coming out of training camp.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn announced Kerryon Johnson as the team’s starter at running back Tuesday. Kamryn Pettway is listed as the speedy Madison Academy alum’s backup on the newly released depth chart.

Johnson missed Auburn’s spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, but was expected to be a five-tool type player for the Tigers taking snaps in the backfield, running the wildcat and returning kicks.

Malzahn said Johnson could be one of the “most versatile guys” in the SEC at the conference’s media days in July.

A month later the expectations for Johnson are much different. The coaches want the 6-foot-0, 211-pound sophomore to be Auburn’s feature back this season and continue the program’s streak of 1,000-yard rushers.

Johnson has the talent to add his name to the list, but questions linger over his durability. As part of a successful Madison Academy program, Johnson’s day was usually over by halftime.

The former Alabama Mr. Football struggled through multiple injuries as a freshman last season including the shoulder injury that ultimately sidelined him in spring camp.

Malzahn is optimistic Auburn can rely on Johnson for 15 to 20 carries a game.

“We recruited him to be the guy,” Malzahn said. “We felt like he could do that. And last year, in fairness to him, he was banged up, but he’s a trooper and he continued to play when he was banged up when some guys wouldn’t have played. So I know he’s a tough guy. He’s a confident guy. He’s ready for the challenge. We’ll see what happens.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left the door open for more of a running back by committee approach earlier in camp.

“We'll learn what they can handle and what they can't,” Lashlee said of the Auburn’s backs. “It may be a committee thing. It may be a deal where we don't have maybe that guy that has 30 carries like we have in the past. Or that it may be a guy who emerges who can handle that. We'll take it as it comes.”

Auburn’s depth chart at running back fluctuated throughout last season with three different backs all claiming the top spot at different points of the year. The only thing Tuesday’s announcement guarantees Johnson is that he will be the first back on the field Saturday.

Stat of the day

Auburn has the most 1,000-yard rushers in college football since 2010.

Can you name all eight? Cam Newton (2010), Michael Dyer (2010, 2011), Tre Mason (2012, 2013), Nick Marshall (2013), Cameron Artis-Payne (2014) and Peyton Barber (2015).

Mason accomplished the feat without making a bowl game in 2012 while Barber needed 40 yards against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.

Auburn is one of only three teams to have at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past seven seasons.

Catch up

T-Minus 20: Can Auburn DE Paul James contribute this fall?

T-Minus 19: Who will be Auburn’s top freshman receiver?

T-Minus 18: Who is Auburn’s leader in the secondary?

T-Minus 17: Looking at Auburn’s freshman redshirt candidates

T-Minus 16: Auburn’s contingency plans on the offensive line

T-Minus 15: Is 2016 going to be Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson’s farewell tour?

T-Minus 14: The most intriguing name on Auburn’s offense

T-Minus 13: Who is Auburn’s most improved defender from last year?

T-Minus 12: Auburn’s most important offensive lineman this season is

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