The Elephant in the Room: Running Back
Kam Martin is the front runner to be Auburn's lead running back but can he hold onto the No.1 spot in 2018? (photo: USA TODAY Sports)
Talking about elephants in an Auburn sports blog is one thing, especially after a twelve-point beat down of the Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare. Talking about pachyderms in terms of Auburn football players is something else, but there really isn’t any other way to describe it other than the old saying, “the elephant in the room.”
Outside of replacing most of the offensive line, it is the biggest story line not being discussed. It’s been hinted at, and it’s been largely ignored or, at least, brushed aside with the parting comment of, “Well, Auburn has had the nation’s longest running streak of 1,000-yard rushers.”
It’s not that simple, even with head coach Gus Malzahn’s promise to continue to lean on a down-hill rushing attack. It’s true that Malzahn has done a fabulous job of continuing to find “that guy” in the backfield. Excuse me for feeling a little different this go-round.
If you listened to the podcast last year, you know that Kam Martin was the subject of many conversations, especially about getting him more touches. Martin rolled up 450 yards on 74 carries, a fantastic six yards per attempt average. While those are great numbers, the issue was more about spelling Kerryon Johnson and keeping him healthy, especially late in November when Auburn looked poised to make a playoff run. Instead, Johnson couldn’t hold up, and Auburn lost the last two games of the season.
Martin has been the easy pick to be the next 1,000 yard rusher at Auburn, almost by default. Who is behind him?
Malik Miller and Devan Barrett have a combined 48 carries for 204 yards. Auburn has a solid group of incoming freshmen in Shaun Shivers and Asa Martin along with redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow. And then there’s C.J. Tolbert, who had been a scout teamer but wound up taking the lion’s share of work during the spring game and making the most of it by earning A-Day MVP honors. However, does anyone really believe he could be a bell cow for Auburn?
Gus Malzahn has never had to break in a running back as he will be asked to do this season. Ben Tate was already climbing the all-time charts for Auburn in Malzhan’s first year on the Plains in 2009. He had Cam Newton, Mario Fannin, and Onterio McCalebb to help break in Mike Dyer in 2010, and Dyer led the way in 2011. Tre Mason was a returning 1,000 rusher in 2013, and Cameron Artis-Payne was a known commodity in 2014.
An argument could be made for the 2015 season that saw the emergence of Peyton Barber after presumed starter Jovon Robinson missed essentially half the season after an injury against Louisville. Due to Robinson’s short stay at Auburn, it’s easy to forget that he was a JUCO phenom and a known asset after being at Auburn his freshman year. Along the way, Kerryon Johnson was brought along until he became the figurehead of the Auburn running game for two years after Robinson was gone.
So, here we are basically with Kam Martin and everyone else. One can’t help but think of the last memory of No. 9 being the up-the-middle handoff from Jarrett Stidham before being helped off the field. It’s probably not fair to say or assume that the 5 foot ten inch, 190 pounder from Port Arthur can’t be an inside runner without giving him a chance. Knowing Malzahn, Martin will get his chance, as will a handful of other backs in the first four games as is the Malzahn way.
But, it won’t be surprising, though, if Martin quickly disappears on 1st-and-10 and 3rd-and-short scenarios. It’s not his fault, it’s physics. It’s also worth noting that he has exactly one game of ten-plus touches against an SEC West opponent, a 13-touch performance against Texas A&M with a 3.5 yards-per-carry average, his next to lowest performance. That was followed by a 2.3 yards-per-carry average against Alabama. Martin is a home run hitter and a great talent to catch the ball out of the backfield, but he’s not likely to be Malzahn’s 20-plus-touch guy.
Who will be? Shivers is likely ruled out since he won’t be on campus until the fall. Asa Martin was less than impressive during A-Day, but that may be due to the defense he faced as well as being in the system for just a short time. Still, his size and game play more closely resemble Kam Martin than other competitors. Malik Miller is a player that most people assume would just climb the depth chart after years on campus, but he just isn’t an SEC caliber running back nor is C.J. Tolbert.
The player with the best chance to end the talk of an elephant in the room is JaTarvious Whitlow. The three-sport athlete played multiple positions in high school and has the combination of size and talent to make him the next bell cow for the Malzahn offense. Tolbert’s A-Day honors overshadowed the work Whitlow did as he gained 98 yards on just 14 carries, which included a hundred-yard change-of-field scamper that gained just a yard on a broken play. But Whitlow looked the part of the one-cut back, physical at the point of attack with patience and vision to see the hole, something his competition seems to lack.
This is the first time Malzahn has had this type of situation. But relying early in the season on Stidham’s ability to read defenses and exploit the passing game should make it easier for Whitlow, or whomever it may be, to come along slowly and ease the transition to shouldering most of the running game.