Auburn Tigers

Getting a healthy Kerryon Johnson back will be huge for Auburn

October 1, 2016: Auburn Tigers running back Kerryon Johnson (21) runs in for a touchdown during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks at Jordan Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

After a 1-2 start to the season, the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 2-1 SEC) have turned things around. Gus Malzahn and his team have won three in a row, including wins over No. 18 LSU and at Mississippi State, and now the Tigers head into the bye week trying to hold on to their momentum while resting and getting ready for the home stretch.

Coming back from the bye, Auburn has a big-time matchup against No. 22 Arkansas, and even if the Razorbacks lose their second straight game this weekend to No. 12 Ole Miss, it should be a tough game.

The good news for Auburn is that even though the Arkansas will be a challenging opponent, the Tigers will have had two weeks to prepare for the contest. That’s two more weeks to scout and game plan, but it also means extra time to get healthy — and that’s huge news for the Tigers.

Starting running back Kerryon Johnson was hurt during Auburn’s win over Mississippi State last weekend. It was a right ankle injury that took him out of the game in the first quarter after running only three times for 21 yards. Auburn employs a two-headed rushing attack, so backup Kamryn Pettway stepped up and led the Tigers with 169 yards and three touchdowns on a very impressive 39 carries, but Johnson’s injury remained troublesome.

Even with Pettway’s big day, Johnson is still Auburn’s leading rusher. So far this season he’s rushed for 538 yards and six touchdowns on 105 carries. He’s the main cog in Auburn’s backfield, and even though Pettway certainly stepped up and proved that he can carry the load, a case can be made that two is way better than one in the Tigers’ backfield.

Malzahn certainly feels that way, at least according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com.

“Kerryon Johnson has really come on. Kamryn Pettway had the one game we held him out because of injuries, but he carried it 39 times Saturday. They really complement each other,” Malzahn said

Malzahn also addressed Johnson’s status this week, with Tom Green of AL.com reporting that the head coach said his starting running back’s injury isn’t all that serious and could return by the Arkansas game. That was something offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee also discussed with Green:

“He’s doing well,” Lashlee said. “We’ll just kind of take it day-to-day right now, but he’s progressing well, probably better than I think our trainers maybe thought after Saturday. It’s nothing major and serious; we just hope he’ll continue to improve and get better.”

Rushing Johnson back wouldn’t be a smart move by Auburn. Though the game against Arkansas is a big one, it’s not as if the Razorbacks are world beaters against the run. They rank No. 9 in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 180.17 rush yards per game, which includes an SEC-high 14 rushing touchdowns. Auburn, on the other hand, is ranked No. 2 in the SEC in rushing offense, notching 262.83 yards per game on the ground and 14 rushing touchdowns. Malzahn’s offensive scheme caters to the run, and as mentioned above, Pettway proved against Mississippi State that he can lead the way.

That said, if Johnson is healthy thanks to the extra week of rest, Malzahn and Lashlee shouldn’t hesitate to get him back on the field. There’s a fine line between rushing back and trusting progress, but if Johnson feels good to go and the trainers sign off on it, Auburn could really use him.

It’s important to realize that a two-headed rushing attack is often predicated on both running backs playing well. Yes, Pettway carried the load against the Bulldogs, but can he do that two weeks in a row? Pettway is 6-foot and 240 pounds, so he’s definitely more of a bruiser compared to Johnson’s 6-foot, 211-pound frame. That type of bruising, downhill running works best when used as a change of pace, and that’s why having Johnson as the starter is so important for Auburn’s offense.

Johnson can lower his shoulder, churn his legs and make big plays, but he’s also a shifty, open-field back who sets up the bigger back, Pettway, In tandem, the two work as an elite one-two punch. That’s not to say that Pettway can’t do it on his own against Arkansas, but if Auburn can get its machine back up and running at full strength, that bodes well for the rest of this season.

Getting the win and keeping momentum rolling is imperative for Auburn. The Tigers are currently third in the SEC West behind undefeated Texas A&M and Alabama, and one of those two teams will fall in two weekends when they match up head-to-head.

If Auburn can keep winning it has a very good chance to keep itself in the SEC West race — the Tigers play the Crimson Tide to end the season in the Iron Bowl — but it’s not going to be an easy road. Arkansas is up next, but Auburn still has games against Ole Miss and Georgia on the schedule, as well as matchups with Vanderbilt and Alabama A&M.

The latter two games are likely wins, but there are no guarantees against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Georgia.

Being at full strength during this stretch of the season is going to be vital for the Tigers, which means having Johnson back and ready to go — as close to 100-percent as possible — is essential.

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