Auburn’s backfield has run all season with a hand tied behind its back — or at least a good leg laid up in recovery.
Down the stretch of the season, full strength in the stable could make for a big difference in the rivalry games coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow made a speedy return to the playing field last Saturday in Auburn’s game against LSU, fighting back closer to strength while freshman D.J. Williams raced for his breakout game in an Auburn uniform — but the two of them finally playing full speed together is something that could change the face of Auburn’s big games against Georgia and Alabama coming up.
Auburn plays Ole Miss on Saturday at 6 p.m. at home, and Whitlow will still be limited in that one, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said, after an injury he suffered on Oct. 5 in Auburn’s first loss of the season at Florida.
In unfortunate twists of timing, Whitlow and Williams haven’t really had the chance to share carries this season. Williams was hurt in the preseason. Just as he got back to full speed, Whitlow was hurt.
Now, though, Auburn can hope that two get back to health in time for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry game on Nov. 16 and the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30.
“D.J., we were very impressed with him,” Malzahn said this week after Williams’ 130-yard rushing performance against LSU last Saturday. He was asked how what role Williams could fill against Ole Miss. “That was his first extended play — so we’ll see how practice goes. We’ve got some other guys that we feel good about too.
“We’ll see how practice goes and we’ll have a good plan.”
Of course, every week, against every opponent, Auburn is going to come up with a different plan to attack different defenses — but anyone on the staff or in the locker room would probably say that having a full helping of weapons between Whitlow and Williams would be big.
Whitlow, a redshirt sophomore at tailback, was averaging 90.7 yards per game before he had to go into a procedure after the Florida game. Malzahn announced then that the team expected Whitlow to miss four to six weeks, though he appeared three weeks after his injury against LSU, taking snaps in the Wildcat formation on three occasions. He came in to offer a power threat against the LSU defense in the first half inside the LSU 10-yard line, and rushed twice to get Auburn down to the 1-yard line, before Bo Nix ultimately punched in a touchdown on a quarterback sneak.
Williams, meanwhile, accounted for most of his yardage on big plays, breaking away for a 41-yard run late in the first half and a 70-yard run early in the third quarter. He tallied just 19 yards on 11 other carries against the stingy LSU defense, but his ability to make big plays seemed apparent.
Williams also caught two passes for 21 yards against LSU.
“He actually played quarterback in high school too, so he’s got good hand-eye coordination,” Malzahn said of Williams’ receiving ability. “What’s really impressed me about him is his knowledge of the game and picking up things real quick.
“I think having played quarterback helps with understanding the big picture.”
Williams and Whitlow have that in common. Williams played quarterback at Sebring High School in Florida before signing with Auburn last December. Whitlow was a standout behind center at LaFayette High School.
For now, Whitlow’s role could be the same as it was against LSU this week against Ole Miss, Malzahn said, with Auburn keeping his carries low and only using him in specific Wildcat situations as he continues to recover. Auburn has a bye next week which will give Whitlow more time to get better. “He was on a limited basis by design and it’ll probably be something like that this week too,” Malzahn said of Whitlow.
But moving forward, if Auburn uses the right balancing act, the Tigers could have two dangerous rushers to throw against Georgia and Alabama.
With nothing left to but win out, Auburn will take all the firepower it can get on its effort to do just that.