By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – Pro day can be bittersweet for schools. On one hand, it’s a way to showcase your former athletes as they prepare for the draft and to one day play in the NFL. But on the other, it’s a reminder of who won’t be back for the next season.
For Auburn, Friday’s pro day featured Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the last two players to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season for the Tigers. Pettway rushed for 1,224 yards in 2016 while Johnson, the SEC offensive player of the year, rushed for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns this past season.
Dating back to 2009 when Gus Malzahn arrived as offensive coordinator, Auburn has had at least one player rush for more than 1,000 yards in nine straight seasons.
With Johnson and Pettway moving on, who will that be this coming season?
That’s been one of the main questions through the first two weeks of spring practice, and to this point, there’s been no definitive answer. The Tigers only first put pads on last Thursday, the final practice before spring break, and Malzahn remains confident in his stable of backs.
“Over the last five years or whatever there have been times where it was, 'Hey, can these guys get it done? Can this group? Are you worried about running back depth?' And if you look at our history, every time we've had somebody step up,” Malzahn said. “And most times we've had two guys step up. We still feel the same.
“The good thing right now is we've got some very talented running backs. We're going to let them compete and hopefully get an order by the time we leave spring. I really feel like we have multiple guys that can do the job. It's just a matter of who can do the job the best.”
The group includes Kam Martin, Malik Miller and Devan Barrett – three players who all gained experience out of the backfield last season – along with JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin, two freshmen who are hoping to see the field early for the Tigers. Whitlow turned heads last fall before an injury kept him out for most of the season, and Asa just arrived in January as an early enrollee and a member of the 2018 recruiting class.
Johnson believes all five are more than capable of taking over for him.
“It’s wide open,” the former Auburn running back said. “In my own personal opinion, we have a chance to play four or five, and I mean game in and game out. If all of those dudes stay healthy, I think we’ve got a chance to play four or five running backs all year long. All those guys are very talented. All those guys are willing to work. It hasn’t been like that since my freshman year.”
Eventually somebody will likely emerge from the pack, but that doesn’t mean it will happen right away. In fact, there’s a better chance the competition carries over into the season.
In 2013, it wasn’t until SEC play that Tre’ Mason emerged, and he made it to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Last year, after missing two games early, Johnson became the lead back and helped carry the Tigers to the SEC championship game.
Regardless of how long it takes, somebody almost always takes over.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Johnson said. “That’s no disrespect to the other ones. They’re all really talented. But one of them has to step up and say, ‘Hey, I know that the coaches count on me 100 percent of the time.’ I think that’s where the real competition is.”
When Auburn returns to practice next week, the running back competition will once again be one of the top storylines as the coaches continue to evaluate this year’s group to find the next 1,000-yard rusher that might one day be running the 40-yard dash at Auburn’s pro day.
From Mason to Artis-Payne to Pettway to Johnson to (insert name here). Who's next?
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: