Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com
What exactly is Kerryon Johnson?
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It seems like a simple question. He's a junior tailback, that's what. He was the state's Mr. Football in 2015 after a fantastic series of seasons at Madison Academy. He rushed for 895 years last season behind a hulking beast of a tailback (Kam Pettway) whose brutality and effectiveness demanded the coaching staff's full play-calling attention. He cracked the 100-yard plateau three times in six starts. He also changed games against LSU and Ole Miss with big catches out of the backfield.
That's the profile of a complete tailback, right?
Well, it's complicated. Johnson has a lean body that, frankly, doesn't yield a lot of physical victories over Southeastern Conference linebackers. Remember how Carnell Williams was a smaller guy who played like he was the baddest dude on the field? Johnson runs like that as well, though he lacks Williams' million-dollar burst. So that serially puts Johnson in harm's way without a go-to avoidance technique for disadvantageous collisions.
Johnson gets crushed a lot. And his body takes a beating. He only missed one game last season after suffering an injury at Mississippi State in October, a credit to his strong desire to be available for his team, but Johnson was affected for at least another month after his return.
There is no doubt that Pettway is a better option as an every-down back. Pettway missed time last season after that fluke, non-contact hamstring injury suffered against Vanderbilt, yes, but he wins a majority of his confrontations. He's difficult to tackle. Opponents had less trouble tacking Johnson in 2016 — holding him to a 4.9 yards-per-carry average while Pettway posted a 5.9 average.
Johnson instead seems best suited for a utility role. That limits his exposure to injury between the tackles and accentuates his fluidity as a receiver. The truth is that Johnson's hands are exceptional for a tailback and easily good enough for him to play receiver. He won't play receiver because he lacks that kind of acceleration, but he has the skills to play the position. It's remarkable. He's a unique kind of player.
Will new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey find a way to maximize Johnson's value? That could be an important facet of the Tigers' new emphasis on the run-pass option. Getting Johnson in leveraged run situations (ie zone runs with support from Chandler Cox) or on the perimeter as a receiver can yield chunk plays. We've seen it happen.
Perhaps Lindsey's lack of history with Johnson leaves him free of the preconceived notions that surely affected how Rhett Lashlee viewed him.
ON THE UP SIDE: Versatility, vision, valor, disposition
ON THE DOWN SIDE: Power, durability
VOTING RESULTS: Bryan Matthews (12th), The Bunker (13th), Jeffrey Lee (14th), Jay G. Tate (14th)
2016 RANKING: No. 7
POSTSCRIPT: I listed "valor" as one of Johnson's most positive traits above. What I mean by that is his willingness to attack even when the situation is dire — or even doomed entirely. Most Auburn supporters try to forget the Tigers' 45-21 drubbing in Baton Rouge during the 2015 season, but that was a watershed moment for Johnson. Why? Because he fought harder than any Auburn player that day. Even as some of his teammates seemed to power down in the second quarter, Johnson elevated his level of emotional engagement. He ran angry that day — and it spoke to the kid's spirit. Position coach Tim Horton knows exactly what he'll get from Johnson every single time: Maximum effort and a strong distaste for failure. Johnson is a bit of a tweener, sure, but nobody will fight more ardently for his team's cause. Nobody.
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