AU football spring

Auburn running backs Malik Miller (left) and JaTarvious Whitlow (right) go through drills during spring practice on Thursday, March 22, 2018 in Auburn, Ala.

Not sure if you have heard, but Auburn will be going into the 2018 season without its two 1,000-yard rushers from the past two seasons, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.

It has been a fairly significant story line.

But it is also a position that the Tigers have been in before under coach Gus Malzahn and still thrived. When Peyton Barber left for the NFL Draft, Roc Thomas transferred and Jovon Robinson was dismissed prior to the 2016 season, Auburn was left with a sophomore scat back and converted H-back. They turned into Johnson and Pettway.

That’s not to say the Tigers are destined for the same fate this season. Combined, the eight running backs vying to fill the void left by Johnson’s and Pettway’s early departures to the NFL have rushed for just 1,056 yards at the Division I level. But this spring showed there is plenty of raw, untapped potential.

Here’s a look at what we know and don’t know about the centerpiece of the Malzahn and Chip Lindsey-led Auburn offense:

THE LINEUP

Kam Martin (Jr.), Malik Miller (So.), Devan Barrett (So.), JaTarvious Whitlow (R-Fr.), Asa Martin (Fr.), Shaun Shivers (Fr.), Harold Joiner (Fr.), C.J. Tolbert (Sr.)

WHAT WE KNOW

What we know is that Kam Martin finished the spring at the top of the depth chart. That doesn’t mean Auburn is anywhere close to locked in to giving the 5-foot-10, 193-pound junior 200-plus carries this season, but he is in a position to at least receive the first.

It’s hard to argue with his qualifications. Of the 1,056 rushing yards those eight running backs have on the Plains, the elder Martin has accounted for 773. He ranked third on the team with 74 carries, second with 453 rushing yards and first among the team’s running backs with a 6.12 yard-per-carry average last season. He also caught three passes for 56 yards and a score, and though he has not been asked to do it much during his career, coaches say the junior shows a willingness to block out of the backfield, which is a key trait for Auburn running backs.

Martin will face some competition for that first carry of 2018 this fall, most likely from Whitlow, Miller and Asa Martin. Whitlow, the former standout quarterback at nearby LaFayette High, has been wowing coaches and teammates with his elusiveness and playmaking ability since the team’s December bowl practices. Miller ranks second in terms of career production, having carried 50 times for 204 yards over the past two seasons. Asa Martin is the reigning Alabama Mr. Football after rushing for 2,228 yards as a senior at Austin High in Decatur last year.

But the elder Martin has more game experience than all three combined. He has recorded double-digit carries just five times in two seasons and has never topped the 50-yard threshold against an SEC opponent (his two 100-yard games came against Alabama A&M and Georgia Southern), but running backs coach Tim Horton said that was “not necessarily a case of Kam not doing well; there were just some guys in front of him.”

“He had a real solid spring,” Horton continued.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What we don’t know yet is what approach Auburn will take at running back. Last year, it was very much “ride the horse that got you there,” as Johnson carried 284 times. The year before that, it was a true one-two punch — Pettway carried 209 times, and Johnson 182.

There’s no evidence that the Tigers have a player capable of handling that workload at the collegiate level on the roster right now. That’s not to say they can’t — it’s just that they haven’t before. Kam Martin has totaled 110 carries through his first two seasons on the Plains. Miller has 50 carries during the same stretch, and Barrett carried 14 times last season. Whitlow, Asa Martin, Shivers and Joiner are all still rookies.

So if there were ever a year to take a more by-committee approach, at least for the first few games, this would be it. As to what that might look like, Horton wasn’t sure when he spoke about the potential in April. On the one hand, he said, you would want to play situational football: best rusher when that’s called for, best receiver when that’s called for, and best blocker when that’s necessary. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be too predictable.

“You've got to make sure you have a little more balance there and you don't tip your hand too much,” Horton said. “That's something that obviously would be considered.”

Of course, it is certainly possible that one of those backs — whether it be one of the Martins, Whitlow, Miller, whoever — emerge as the go-to guy and dominate carries like Johnson and Pettway once did. But given how late-season injuries to those players affected Auburn the last two seasons, having more than one or two backs capable of sharing the workload wouldn’t hurt.

THEY SAID IT

“A couple of years ago when we lost some of those guys — one transferred, one wasn’t part of the team — there were a lot of questions about who is was going to be and how are you going to… I feel the same way right now. Of course, then Kerryon and Pettway both stepped up big. I know we’ve got guys that can do it. I feel good about the number of guys we have competing for the job. Fall camp has a way of really putting people up to different spots. Kam Martin, like Tim said the other day, would be the first to go out there, but we’ve got great competition at that position, so that’s a good thing. You can’t have enough depth at the running back position in our league, anyway.” — Gus Malzahn

COMING SATURDAY

None of those running backs can be successful unless Auburn blocks for them up front. This weekend we’ll take a look at the team’s offensive line, starting with the men on the interior at guard and center.

PREVIOUS POSITIONS

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog. To reach him by email, click here.

Auburn beat writer

A Connecticut native and University of Maryland graduate, Josh has been covering Auburn University athletics for the Opelika-Auburn News since the summer of 2016.

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