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