Auburn football: Johnson expected to return at Missouri
AUBURN — Auburn may be getting its 1-2 punch back at tailback for the start of Southeastern Conference play.
Junior tailback Kerryon Johnson is expected to be active as No. 15 Auburn (2-1) travels to Missouri (1-2, 0-1) for Auburn’s conference opener Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPNU) after dealing with a severe hamstring injury in the 41-7 win over Georgia Southern in the Sept. 2 season opener.
“K.J. will back this week,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday in his weekly news conference.
Malzahn wouldn’t say that Johnson, who ran for 136 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Southern, is 100 percent healthy but the coach added that the tailback practiced “some last week” and was active for practice Sunday.
“He’s ready to play,” Malzahn said.
In Johnson’s absence, Kamryn Pettway has averaged 28 carries a game against Clemson and Mercer each of the last two weeks, including 34 attempts last weekend in the 24-10 win over the FCS Bears. Pettway, who leads the SEC in rushing attempts a game, said Saturday night that even he was surprised by the amount of workload he’s had since returning from his one-game suspension.
“I’m a strong guy, and I’m not just going to give in,” Pettway said. “I am a little surprised, but then again not too much with the situation with Kerryon, but I was ready for it.”
Auburn even attempted several direct-snap runs out of the wildcat formation to Pettway, similar to how he was used at Prattville High School. That’s a setup that has normally been designated for Johnson each of the last three seasons.
“I feel natural running it because we did it a lot (at Prattville),” Pettway said. “Our offensive line is young, but they’re good and coming to work each and every week. We’ll just continue to get better.”
Johnson limped off the field in the middle of the second quarter against Georgia Southern with what appeared to be a right hamstring injury. The junior totaled 136 yards on 16 carries and a 60-yard touchdown, which was Auburn’s first of the evening, before being escorted into the training tent on the Jordan-Hare Stadium sidelines. Johnson missed one game last season following a severe ankle injury early in a blowout win at Mississippi State The former Alabama Mr. Football had a history of injuries in high school as well including hamstring ailments.
“He’s been looking pretty good. I think the plan was to get him ready for this week,” Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “I don’t know if he’s at 100 percent but you can tell his burst looks a lot better. He’s talking confident and saying he feels good so I’m excited to see him play.”
Missouri is 92nd in the nation in rushing defense and has allowed four yards a carry in its first three games, all of which at home, against Missouri State, South Carolina and Purdue.
Sophomore Kam Martin, who Malzahn said earlier in the week would be the team’s third-string running back, matched Johnson in the opener with 136 yards on just 14 carries and a touchdown. However, since that season-opening game no Auburn tailback outside of Pettway has received a single rushing attempt.
Before Pettway’s suspension and Johnson’s injury, there was preseason hype surrounding a possible duo of 1,000-yard tailbacks at Auburn, but now Malzahn is hopeful that Johnson’s return can just relieve some of the workload from the 240-pound Pettway.
“He’s an SEC running back,” Malzahn said. “When you look back, Tre Mason carried it quite a few times. Cameron Artis-Payne carried it quite a few times. That’s just the way it goes. The fact that (Kerryon Johnson) is back will definitely help. ”