Better/Worse in 2017: Auburn running game
It was apparent throughout the 2016 season that Auburn’s offensive identity centered on the run game. The Tigers relied on it so much that it actually hurt the team at times.
Yes, it’s always nice to have an offense that can eat clock and keep the defense off the field, but it wasn’t like coach Gus Malzahn had much of a choice. Sean White was an effective quarterback when working the short to intermediate parts of the field, but the Tigers only had two passing plays go for 50-plus yards.
It never felt like Auburn could get any sort of balance, and that was the Achilles’ heel that kept the Tigers from making a push for the SEC West title.
The team is looking to create more balance. How will that effect the run game? Can fans expect it to be better or worse in 2017?
Rushing yards per game (SEC rank): 271.3 (1st)
Rushing TDs: 33 (T-1st)
Yards/carry: 5.5 (5th)
If health permits, the Tigers’ run game will be led by a two-headed monster in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Both were impressive in 2016, and there is no reason to believe that they won’t be as good — or better — in 2017.
Pettway is the bruiser of this thunder and lightning duo. Checking in at 6-0, 235 pounds, the converted fullback is a load to bring down. In the nine games that Pettway played in last season, he averaged 23.2 carries — clearly setting himself apart as the primary rushing option.
During the eight games when both Pettway and Johnson were healthy, Pettway (182 rushes) almost doubled the amount of carries that Johnson (95) received.
Now, Johnson did prove to be a much better option as a receiver out of the backfield — hauling in 17 passes for 125 yards while Pettway managed only two receptions all season.
Fans can also expect to see Kam Martin in a small, rotational role — he carried 44 times for 320 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Auburn hasn’t gone without a 1,000-yard rusher since 2008 when Ben Tate led the team with 664 yards. I wouldn’t expect this year to end the streak.
Pettway only played in nine games last season, and he still rushed for 1,224 yards. If you extrapolate his production over 13 games, he would’ve run for 1,768 yards.
Johnson ran for 895 yards of his own, so it’s possible Auburn could have its first dual 1,000-yard rushers since Tre Mason (1,816 yards) and Nick Marshall (1,068) in 2013. With Auburn trying to create more balance, though, it’s not likely.
The play-calling on offense is going to look a lot different now that Chip Lindsey is leading the way. Last season, Auburn ran the ball 69.1 percent of the time — by far the most in the SEC.
That strategy created a lot of production on the ground but really hurt Auburn when it needed to hang with a high-scoring offense. People should expect to see a much more balanced attack this season.
During the A-Day game in April, Lindsey called a pass play 62.5 percent of the time on first down. In comparison, Auburn elected to run the ball on 81.1 percent of the first down snaps last season.
There are still a lot of question marks surrounding Auburn’s offensive line.
The unit lost RT Robert Leff and LG Alex Kozan, and Braden Smith will be replacing Leff at right tackle following 27 consecutive starts at right guard. At 6-6, 303 pounds, Smith could be better suited for tackle, but he did earn second team All-America honors at right guard last season.
Only two returnees will continue at their same positions: center Austin Golson — who also played four games at left tackle last year — and Darius James, a transfer from Texas who took over at left tackle when Golson moved to center.
The shakeup could cause issues, especially early on.
One stat that must improve
It is extremely important that both Pettway and Johnson remain healthy.
The two players’ missing a combined five games in 2016 might not seem like much, but it mattered. Auburn’s offense is at its best when it is able to deploy both players.
Transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s presence will help the run game, but having Pettway and Johnson available will be even more important for Stidham and the passing game. Auburn limited Pettway’s activity in the spring to protect him, and Johnson left the A-Day game early after suffering a high ankle sprain.
If the duo’s missed-games total is closer to zero than last year’s five, Auburn can compete with Alabama for the SEC West title.
Better or worse in 2017?
It’s a matter perspective. Statistically, the run game will probably not put up the same totals it did in 2016.
On the other hand, Stidham’s ability to push the ball downfield should stop defenses from stacking the box, so there is a good chance the yards-per-carry average shoots up. Based of efficiency, the running game very well could be better.