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The Lindsey Effect: Is Kerryon Johnson the Next Ronnie Brown?

By on June 27th, 2017 in Football, News 11 Comments »
Sep 26, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Kerryon Johnson (21) carries against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

The summer months are always the toughest months for college football fans. They are also one of the best times for writers, bloggers, and reporters as the desire for college football is at a high-water mark while actual news is at annual lows. It’s typically a bad thing if your team finds its way into the news this time of year.

That hasn’t been the case for Auburn Tiger fans. By and large, only good news is coming out of the Plains. Auburn secured a commitment from Bo Jackson’s nephew, and the hype surrounding the Tigers is at a pre-2015 fever pitch. Or, maybe a pre-2003 fever pitch.

Writers and bloggers alike are saturating the internet with talk of Jarrett Stidham and Kam Pettway as co-Heisman contenders while singing Auburn’s praises as a potential playoff team. Yet, many fans (yours truly included) find themselves being Debbie Downers. After all, we’ve seen it before, just go back to 2003 or 2015. The 2003 season was probably the most notable of the years where Auburn was poised for a championship run but crashed and burned down the stretch. 

But, 2003 was followed by 2004 when the Tigers were one of the most dominating teams in college football—on both sides of the ball. Auburn produced a backfield that was entirely NFL first-round draft picks. This included Ronnie Brown, a fantastic all-around player. He could run the ball. He could catch the ball. And in the NFL, we found out he could throw the ball. What set him apart from fellow running back Cadillac Williams was how good he was in space catching the ball.

Earlier this week AL.com had an an article highlighting an Auburn player who has a chance to surpass Brown’s exploits—Kerryon Johnson. There is little doubt that KJ is Auburn’s most versatile offensive weapon, and he is poised to benefit the most from new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, especially in the passing game. That’s because Lindsey’s offense is expected to be a wide-open passing attack with a bruising run game.

But unless you are Ole Miss, simply chucking the ball down the field doesn’t work in the SEC. The touchdowns may be scored on long passes and short runs, but the chains are moved with check-down passes. That’s what Ronnie Brown did, and it’s what Kerryon Johnson may be able to do even better in 2017. 

Brown’s 2004 campaign ended with just over 900 rush yards and eight touchdowns. However, it was his 34 catches for 300 yards and a TD that really made him a first-round pick. Johnson has posted some very Brown-esq numbers rushing the football, and he has 31 catches for 284 yards but no touchdowns—yet—in his career.

Johnson hasn’t shown he can be another Ronnie Brown just yet, and the question is less about his ability and more about Lindsey’s use of him. So is this just idle speculation, or are there some facts behind the claims? To answer that question, we need to take a look at Chip Lindsey’s past as an offensive coordinator.

While Lindsey has been lauded for the job he did with the passing game at Southern Miss, what isn’t talked about is the job he did with the running game. Quarterback Nick Mullens threw for almost 4,500 yards and 38 touchdowns, but he was also effective running the ball when he had to. In addition, Ito Smith and Jalen Richard both rushed for over 1,000 yards apiece and combined for 24 touchdowns. More importantly, the two combined for 79 catches, almost 800 yards and five touchdowns.

However, what isn’t mentioned is Lindsey’s first year at Southern Miss, which didn’t go nearly as well as later years. Mullens had a pedestrian 2,400 yards with 12 TD’s and 9 INT’s. Smith led all rushers with just over 500 yards, and Southern Miss backs combined for only 38 catches for around 350 yards and two TD’s. 

When Lindsey was at Arizona State the Sun Devils struggled. But ASU couldn’t keep a QB healthy, rolling through three starters. What Lindsey did have was Demario Richard, an extremely versatile athlete who posted over 1,000 yards and seven TD’s on the ground to go with 32 catches for 309 yards and three TD’s in 2015. With that kind of multi-purpose athlete, it was expected that Chip Lindsey’s entrance would result in a super star. However, Demario’s production regressed in 2016 as he had only 593 yards and three TD’s for a paltry 3.8 yards per rush average. Additionally, he had 17 catches for 126 yards and no TD’s, his career low in both rushing and receiving TD’s. 

It must be noted that Sun Devils Richard and fellow back Kalen Ballage combined in 2015 for 1,750 yards and 16 TD’s while catching 44 balls for 370 yards and a TD. When you add in DJ Foster, a third running back who moved back and forth in motion as a quasi-slot receiver, those numbers ballooned to 103 catches for 953 yards and six TD’s. 

The evidence seems to point that the media’s conclusions may be counterintuitive if writers are suggesting that Lindsey’s offense will immediately be successful, especially at distributing the ball out of the backfield. The evidence suggests that year one of Chip Lindsey will not be nearly as explosive as advertised and could possibly be rocky.

It is certainly true that Lindsey wasn’t afforded the same talent at Arizona State or Southern Miss as he has at Auburn. But, he also didn’t have to play the SEC West on a weekly basis. Still, it would be hard to throw the ball to running backs less than Auburn has done the past two years. Five different Auburn backs combined for 26 catches in 2016, and Kerryon Johnson’s 17 catches easily led the pack. 

The evidence does show that year two could be magical. If Auburn retains pieces such as Stidham and Johnson, believed to be special, Lindsey’s second year could be one of the very best, if not the best, in Auburn history. Of course, if the offense falters again this year, neither Lindsey nor coach Gus Malzahn may be around to experience it. 

Assuming that it all comes together, it is likely that Kerryon Johnson will be a major beneficiary. Weighing Johnson’s potential in Lindsey’s offense, a season with 1,000 rushing yards and 300-plus receiving yards for him isn’t out of the question. If Kerryon can sprinkle in a few more TD’s, he could overtake Brown as Auburn’s most successful multi-dimensional player.

11 Comments

  1. jbellison56 says:

    Just hope he can stay healthy.

    • AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

      I believe if KJ stays healthy he may be in the Heisman discussion by the end of the season.

  2. neonbets says:

    The evidence suggests that year one of Chip Lindsey will not be nearly as explosive as advertised and could possibly be rocky.

    Maybe that sentence should read:

    The evidence suggests that year one of most new Offensive Coordinators will not be nearly as explosive as advertised and could possibly be rocky.

    Lindsey, for example, inherited an offense coming off a 1-11 season in his first year at So Miss. ASU wasn’t very good either. The previous OCs before Lindsey were fired, and he did not inherit strong units. There probably isn’t much evidentiary value in cherry-picking his first season without a comparison to the one prior.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      I don’t think i was cherry picking. There has been all this hoopla about the backs (and the tight ends, which i may research next) being more involved in the passing game. Did some digging, not knowing what i would find. What i found was that in his first year, the backs were used less than the OC before him. His only year two was phenomenal.

  3. Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

    I would say that to this point, Kerryon has under-performed since arriving on The Plains. Not by much and by no means am I suggesting he’s a bust. The coaching staff just seems to have had a very difficult time finding schemes/plays/etc. for him to be successful in.

    One component of that his catching the ball out of the backfield. Gus doesn’t seem to like that very much along with targeting tight-ends in the passing game. Two things that frustrate me greatly about his offense.

    If Kerryon is given a genuine opportunity for a more diverse set of touches, I think we see his performance and stats skyrocket. Here’s hoping that Chip Lindsey has expanded Gus’ philosophies a bit and finally brought a truly powerful passing attack to The Plains. This team is going to be very dangerous and very fun to watch if he has.

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      ……Agreed. As far as I'm concerned, I think K. J. has been pretty successful in finding a niche the past two seasons, on a team that had a ton of talented backs when he came in. He had a sort of wildcat role as a true freshman, and scored a few times in an offensively-challenged season.

      …..Last year, he was the feature back early in the season. We have to remember that he was just a true sophomore. Offensive woes against Clemson and Texas A&M have less to do with the running backs, than blocking issues and scheme issues.

      …..As far as "getting the backs and tight ends involved in the passing game," a whole lot of Auburn offensive coaches over the years have said that line. I'm naturally skeptical, till I see it on the field.

      • Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

        “As far as “getting the backs and tight ends involved in the passing game,” a whole lot of Auburn offensive coaches over the years have said that line. I’m naturally skeptical, till I see it on the field.” –

        I’m both intrigued and terrified of that statement at the same time. I’m COMPLETELY skeptical that it will happen, but it needs to this year for us to have any significant success.

  4. sparkey sparkey says:

    I have no idea how successful Auburn will be this season. What I will say about the hype for this coming season, it really isn’t a major hype train for Auburn. I realize people like to think that it is because talking heads and analysts like what Stidbam brings to Auburn where there is a strong running game. I will admit there has been some hype about this coming season, but it isn’t anywhere close to 2003.

    I think Auburn fans need to take a step back and think about what kind of program do they really want for the beloved institution. First and foremost, Vegas has Auburn winning 8 games this season. Are we so terrified of expectations that we can’t handle a possible 8 win season? Really?

    ESPN has several so called experts that predicted Auburn will not finish as well as Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. On top of that, most of them expect UGA to beat Auburn too. Mind you, Auburn plays two of those three games at home. Is that really what you want to call high expectations?

    Back in 2003, Auburn was picked by most of the experts in the preseason to win the whole thing. They were on the cover of SI. They started off with powerhouse USC in an intense rematch from the previous season. In this coming season, Auburn starts off with a first bout pitted against Georgia Southern.

    The highest expectations any of the best writers are putting on Auburn is 10-2 losing to both Alabama and UGA. That is the best season I have seen predicted so far. The rest say Auburn is a possible dark horse. Look, if we as fans can’t handle being a freaking possible dark horse, then we really need to decide what kind of pedigree does Auburn have and what do we want for the program moving forward.

    People see us as a team that might be really good but they still are skeptical. If we can’t handle that, we need to put down our fan cards.

  5. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Good points. For me, I can do the math. Historically, Auburn has been an 8-4 team on average. As long as the team hits that mark most years, a coach can hang on for a long time. We'll grouse about 8-4, too, because the school has taught us to aim higher.

    …..I think, with the talent Auburn has in place, expectations are higher than average, among the Auburn fans that paid attention this past spring. You want to talk hype? Three Tigers were on the Athlon All-America team this spring! Braden Smith and Daniel Carlson were first team, and Kamryn Pettway was a second teamer. Yes, we are hyped!

    • sparkey sparkey says:

      A little bit, yes. Nothing at all close to what we got in 2003. They are calling us the sleeper pick. Are we incapable of handling sleeper expectations? Dear God, are we that afraid of people thinking we might be successful?

  6. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    Mind over matter. Your mind is what matters!
    Let us get our heads straight. Will we be good? Yes. We will be VERY good.
    I see AU as having 1 extremely controversial loss to either LSU or UA.
    War dam errybody!!