How Kerryon Johnson’s injury might affect Auburn’s strategy in SEC Championship Game

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AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s offense has operated like a well-oiled machine over the last month. But one of its most vital engines probably won’t be firing on all cylinders in the SEC Championship Game — and that’s the most optimistic of outlooks.

Junior running back Kerryon Johnson is “day-to-day” with a shoulder injury he suffered in the second half of a 26-14 win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl, according to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Johnson’s teammates and Johnson himself say they think he will suit up Saturday against Georgia, but nothing is guaranteed.

If Johnson can’t go or if his snap count is drastically reduced, Auburn will have to change up things offensively.

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Johnson’s go-to backup this season has been sophomore Kam Martin. The Texas native bulked up over the offseason but still maintained his top-notch speed — he’s breaking more tackles and averaging 6.39 yards per touch.

Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said earlier this week he felt confident Martin could handle a big workload against Georgia, but Johnson’s absence wouldn’t call for a strict A-to-B replacement strategically.

“I think he’s capable,” Lindsey said. “I mean, obviously, we’d probably play two or three guys, but I feel good about all of them, to be honest with you. We’ll see how the game plan goes.”

The progression behind Martin is murky between freshman Devan Barrett and redshirt freshman Malik Miller.

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Auburn running back Devan Barrett’s longest cameo this season came in Week 1. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Barrett has played more snaps this season with the first-team offense, but they’ve mostly come in certain packages — namely a two-running back set in which Barrett motions out for a swing pass. It’s a clearly defined role, which is common for a freshman who didn’t enroll early.

Miller, who missed most of 2016 with a knee injury, has almost exclusively been a between-the-tackles runner in garbage time. He has more experience than Barrett with the total playbook.

If Johnson doesn’t play against Georgia, the easiest solution for the Auburn offense would be more passes from the arm of sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Texas native was 16-for-23 passing for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first meeting against Georgia and is coming off a game in which he completed 75 percent of his passes against Alabama’s highly ranked defense.

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But more passes would mean more times for Auburn to call on its running backs in pass protection. That’s an area in which Johnson has rapidly improved this season. Martin, the presumed No. 2 running back, is 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds and hasn’t been asked to do much blocking.

Malzahn, however, says he believes all three of the reserve running backs can pass protect, even though they haven’t been asked to do so during games.

“I’ll just say this: I’ve got confidence in all of our running backs in pass protection,” Malzahn said.
“Some of them have had a lot of opportunities during games, some of them have had limited opportunities. But just from the practices and scrimmages, we’ve got a lot of confidence in all of our running backs in protection.”

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Auburn running back Kam Martin has been the backup to Kerryon Johnson since Kamryn Pettway’s injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

If Johnson doesn’t play against Georgia, it shouldn’t change the Tigers rushing attack too much. Martin has proven to be capable of running up the gut this season, although he might not have the stamina and durability of Johnson.

That would open the door for extra touches for Barrett, then Miller. Barrett has been a receiving option in almost every play he’s run with the first-team offense. Tweaking that strategy and giving him some carries could prove to be successful against Georgia.

In terms of passing, look for Auburn to hit more quick screens, especially considering the success it had with them last weekend against Alabama. Ryan Davis is fresh off an 11-catch game, and Darius Slayton created a couple of nice gains on those plays as well.

These are all strategies Auburn has successfully used at various times this season, but it’s been able to primarily lean on Johnson. No matter if Johnson suits up or not, don’t expect Lindsey to reinvent the wheel after a red-hot regular season.

“I think it just comes down to you trying to get your players in a position to play well and win and give them the best opportunity based on the game plan,” Lindsey said. “I’m sure they’re doing the same thing on their side. There’ll be wrinkles, I’m sure, on each side, and how we adjust to those will be important.

“At the end of the day, this is a players’ game, and we’ll put them in position to make plays and see what happens.”

The post How Kerryon Johnson’s injury might affect Auburn’s strategy in SEC Championship Game appeared first on SEC Country.

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