The Auburn offense has many moving pieces, but under head coach Gus Malzahn it is pretty well known that the running back who carries the ball also carries the offense. In 2013 and 2017, we saw it with Tre Mason and Kerryon Johnson, where their play elevated the Tigers into the BCS National Championship Game and SEC Championship Game, respectively.
Entering the 2019 season, every Auburn fan knows Boobee Whitlow is the next guy up. The Lafayette native had a huge break-out season in 2018, rushing for 787 yards and six touchdowns on 150 attempts, averaging more than 5 yards a carry. He added 173 yards and two scores on 15 receptions (11.5 yards per reception). Thatís not bad for a kid who was recruited to be a wide receiver, but can Whitlow bring his game to the next level this fall?
The only thing that slowed down Whitlow thus far has been injuries. He redshirted in 2017 while missing the entire season with an injury then battled more injuries last fall down the stretch of a brutal SEC schedule.
Tiger fans should have confidence in Whitlow being RB1. In the 2019 A-Day game, Whitlow averaged 6.3 yards per carry, taking only seven handoffs and recording 44 yards. But considering his injury-prone history and realistic understanding that Auburn will need more than one guy carrying the ball, who else on the roster can add some good carries? There are actually several players.
Kam Martin will have his share of carries this fall. The Baylor transfer was expected to be the starting running back in 2018 before Whitlow took center stage. Still, Martin had 458 yards and a touchdown on 103 carries. Playing limitedly in the A-Day game this spring, Martin had 20 yards on three carries. This fall, his role is going to be pivotal. Even if he continues playing behind Whitlow, Martin should receive a high number of carries and Auburn will need him to play to his potential to keep the offense moving the ball.
It would not be a stretch to feel confident that Whitlow and Martin will be the top two premier backs for the Tigers this fall. However, there are some other players who have caught the attention of coaches and fans that could contribute.
True freshman D.J. Williams had one of the most talked about performances in the A-Day game. The four-star recruit rushed only 10 times, racking up 57 yards, but the initial reaction to the newcomer picking up chunks of yards at a time was, ďWho is this guy?Ē Now as the Tigers prepare for the start of fall practice, you have to wonder how Malzahn could work Williams into the offense.
Auburn also has two in-state players who could be worth keeping an eye on.
Mountain Brook native Harold Joiner played against Washington and scored a touchdown against Alabama State while redshirting in 2018, but itíll be interesting to see how much action the 6-foot-4, 215-pound back sees in 2019. During A-Day, Joiner had 21 yards on six carries, which arenít the most attractive numbers, but that doesnít mean the redshirt freshman cannot contribute this fall. Saying that, Malzahn and Co. might also be grooming Joiner for when heís an upperclassman.
The last running back who has been a curious case is Malik Miller. The Madison Academy graduate shared a backfield with Johnson in high school, but the two have had different results at Auburn. Miller, a junior, suffered a season-ended injury after only three games in 2016 and has seen plenty of action the last two seasons despite the box score not necessarily showing it. In 2017, Miller had 135 yards on 34 carries in 12 games and last year he had 68 yards on 19 carries in 10 games. Where the 5-foot-11, 235-pound running back might contribute best is at the goal line, where he punched in three touchdowns last year. However, during A-Day, Miller had six carries for 13 yards.
As the 2019 season approaches, the running back naturally has a big role in the Auburn offense. But with the Tigers having a freshman quarterback in either Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix, the running backs will need to elevate their game immediately with Oregon being Auburnís season opener. The good news (maybe bad news?) for the Tigers is the concept is not new. The years that Auburnís offense has been incredibly successful are also the years that the ground game has been efficient. Auburn has the tools to have a strong running game in 2019, itís just a question of how itís done.