Auburn football: Malzahn believes Johnson ‘needs to be in the Heisman talk’
AUBURN — Gus Malzahn is more than willing to be Kerryon Johnson’s mouthpiece when it comes to discussing the Heisman Trophy.
The Auburn coach understood Saturday evening maybe more than every that to start the conversation, you need to start talking. Malzahn couldn’t wait to blab about his junior tailback following a 40-17 physically dominating blowout win over then-No. 2 Georgia.
“I mean I’ve been saying it for a couple weeks that he’s one of the best running backs in the country, if not the best,” Malzahn said. “He proved it tonight. He needs to be in the Heisman talk.”
Johnson rushed for 167 yards on 32 carries in Saturday’s win. He scored a touchdown on a screen pass that he carried 55 yards into the end zone. He now has 17 touchdowns, and in the eight games he has played, he is averaging 12.8 points a game, which ranks second nationally to Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary (13.8).
Johnson became the first tailback this season to rush for at least 100 yards against Georgia, and he leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing with 1,035 yards.
As Georgia head coach Kirby Smart departed Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night, he couldn’t help but shake his head at the first running back this season to completely overshadow his dynamic duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. In stating his case for SEC player of the year honors, Johnson’s contribution by himself outrushed the combined total of the Georgia 1-2 punch by 139 yards.
“They have a great back who is very patient behind the line of scrimmage,” Smart said. “We talked about it the whole week. (Kerryon Johnson) waits and then he bursts. He is a great running back, and he totally bellowed our defense. I have a lot of respect for his toughness and the offensive line’s toughness.”
By breaking the 1,000-yard barrier, Johnson became the 16th running back to do so under Malzahn in his 11 years as a college head coach or offensive coordinator. Johnson is the sixth different player to get to the 1,000-yard mark in that span.
“I appreciate it from him seeing that he’s coached a few guys in that conversation and guys that have won it,” Johnson said. “So, I appreciate that from him, but until it’s in there then it’s not in there.”
The last time an Auburn running back was invited to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist was 2013 when Tre Mason went. Mason’s final month of the season that year included 868 yards in a five-game stretch to catapult him to sixth in the final voting.
“I just keep going out, I run and run and if it gets (in the Heisman Trophy discussion) there you know it’s pretty cool,” Johnson said. “It’s always been a dream of mine. I’ve never thought that I’d get to that level, but it’d be pretty awesome to see.”
Johnson continues to show the durability that many questioned he had when he arrived at Auburn as a five-star recruit from Madison Academy. Johnson is one of only two tailbacks in the SEC to average 20 carries a game, even though he suffered a hamstring injury in the season opener that forced him to miss two games.
In the last two games, Johnson has showed the violent running style that including against Texas A&M that included stiff arms and overpowering second-level players. Against Georgia, a defense ranked in the Top Five nationally in stopping the run, Johnson showed more patience in picking holes to run through than physical dominance.
“I don’t know if there is a better running back out there,” Malzahn said. “If so, I’d like to see it. He’s one of the better players in college football, and he’s proven that time and time again. I’m proud of our offensive line too, they imposed their will on them in the second half.”