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Auburn football: What the Tigers want out of highlight-reel runner Whitlow

April 12, 2018

AUBURN — Boring, uneventful, repetitive and ordinary.

These the characteristics the Auburn coaching staff wants JaTarvious Whitlow to have a better grasp upon before preseason camp in August. In the most apparent and obvious difference between fans and coaches, Whitlow excites fans as a constant highlight reel but frustrates coaches with inconsistent results. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made it clear he believes the redshirt freshman has the talent to be a contender for the starting tailback job but needs to commit to the mundane nature of a successful straightforward 4-yard run.

“Boobie’s got that ability. I mean he just needs to carry the ball more, but he does have a unique ability,” said Malzahn, referring to Whitlow by his nickname “Boobie,” which is based on the major figure in the 1990 book “Friday Night Lights” by Buzz Bissinger.

Take Whitlow’s most memorable moment from Saturday’s A-Day game. He took the zone-read handoff from Malik Willis and immediately ran to the right to avoid a blitzing Jamien Sherwood. Whilow, who passed for 2,292 yards and 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 2,147 yards with 30 touchdowns as a senior at nearby LaFayette High School two years ago, immediately stuck his right foot in the turf, cut back and then reversed field back toward the right sideline.

At this point, Malzahn, who was standing several yards behind the play, realized he was in physical jeopardy because Whitlow was reversing field from about 5 to 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Whitlow then avoided a 5-yard loss on a tackle by defensive lineman Gary Walker

Whitlow’s athleticism helped him avoid a tackle for loss from Chandler Wooten before finally being hauled down by a host of Auburn defenders. The play lasted 16 seconds of real time, and the crowd-pleasing run involved at least three missed tackles. The result was 1 yard. In the coaches’ evaluation, this play will go down as a loss for the first-team offense.

“Of course, you can’t make a living in this league with the speed doing that, but I thought it was encouraging that he doesn’t like to go down,” Malzahn said. “He just needs some more experience.”

Malzahn said Saturday that this isn’t the first time Whitlow has reversed field like that. In a previous scrimmage this spring in an empty stadium, coaches and teammates said Whitlow executed a similar move for a touchdown.

“It was something like you see on Madden — where you just go one way and he reversed the other way,” junior offensive lineman Marquel Harrell said March 24. “It was a good run. It brought some energy to the field. It was a good run for him.”

Saturday’s attempt by Whitlow was not successful. However, with the help of much less memorable runs by fans, Whitlow finished Saturday with 98 yards on 14 carries mostly gained against the second-string defense. He did have a 25-yard run against Auburn’s first-string unit.

With Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense that is being refined by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, any rush above 8 yards allows Auburn to push the tempo of a game. In a 26-14 victory over Alabama in the Iron Bowl last season had much to do with Kerryon Johnson totaling 104 yards on 30 carries. Johnson’s longest carry was 15 yards but his day involved much more of the 4- to 5-yard variety in between the tackle box.

“I think he just needs more experience and more carries between the tackles,” Malzahn said. “I think he played quarterback in high school and he got some quarterback runs but there’s nothing like getting that feel behind an offensive line playing tailback.”

With Auburn’s offensive line essentially set at both guard spots with Harrell and Mike Horton and Malzahn’s confidence in the development of Kaleb Kim and Nick Brahms at center, whoever wins the tailback job will need to prove he can be efficient in between the tackles similar to Johnson, Kamryn Pettway, Tre’ Mason or any of the other six players since 2009 that have reached the 1,000-yard mark since 2009.

“It’s kind of like a Pettway and Kerryon mix,” senior H-back Chandler Cox said last week. “He’s physical, he’s fast, he can move. He’s got kind of the shifty, kind of like what Kerryon does, but is more physical, like Pettway.”