Auburn football: What direction will Tigers take at running back?
A series of events have resulted in a situation that few, if any, saw occurring on the Plains this season: a running back conundrum.
It was supposed to be Boobie Whitlow’s year. After a freshman campaign that saw him put up 787 yards and 6 touchdowns while also catching 15 passes for 173 yards and 2 scores, Whitlow was expected to break out and rush for more than 1,000 yards after the first season the Tigers went without one in the Gus Malzahn era.
Whitlow’s injury against Florida made Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers have to step up, but possibly no one could have foreseen what true freshman D.J. Williams would be able to do when given the opportunity. In the past two games — against No. 1 LSU and Ole Miss — the runner from Lake Placid, Fla., has gone for 223 yards and a score on 37 carries, 24 of those coming against the Rebels last week.
Whitlow is still nicked up, sitting out all but three rush attempts in the 23-20 loss to LSU on Oct. 26. With the annual rivalry game against Georgia coming up and a chance to keep their (extremely slim) College Football Playoff chances alive, where will the Tigers turn if Whitlow is still unable to go?
Smart money, considering Malzahn’s history of handling running backs, would be on a committee behind quarterback Bo Nix, with Williams, Martin and Shivers all receiving carries. Martin is the veteran of that trio; therefore, giving him the most carries would make the most sense. It’s the safe play.
In my opinion, it would be the wrong one. You ride the hot hand, and, for the Tigers right now, that is Williams. There will obviously be some miscommunication when you have two true freshmen in the backfield – there was a big one against LSU that cost Auburn some yards – but the positives of Williams, already built to be durable at 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds, outweigh the negatives, and we all know that the Tigers need some positives on offense right now.
If Malzahn finally wants to throw caution to the wind, much like he did against Oregon in the opener, then starting Williams would be the call. At this point in the season, what does he have to lose? If he stays conservative, the Tigers will have no chance of beating the Bulldogs (or Alabama two weeks later). Auburn will finish 8-4, the fan base will grow even more tired of Malzahn’s act, and more pressure will be on the athletic department powers to fire him.
Run a Williams who has a full tank of gas (only 55 rushing attempts all season), and maybe, just maybe, the magic that came to Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2017 will return. He’s a bull of a runner, much like Rudi Johnson and Ronnie Brown in the past, and he’s not afraid to lay a hit on a linebacker. Bring back physical Auburn football at the position, and good things could happen.
Of course, this could all become moot if Whitlow is able to return at full strength. Yet even if that does happen, Malzahn and his coaching staff would be deemed clinically insane if they left the talented Williams off the field. There’s no way that Whitlow will be able to carry the load in his first game back. Pure physical limitations will cause that.
If Whitlow is not at 100 percent, though, Malzahn needs to stay away from another situation like that of Kerryon Johnson in the 2017 SEC Championship Game. Unless Whitlow is fully healthy, the coach will need to ride his freshman for as many carries as he can. It’s the only way Auburn can take down its rivals.