Running back Kerryon Johnson is a “day-to-day deal” after suffering a shoulder injury in Auburn’s win over Alabama, head coach Gus Malzahn discussed Tuesday morning.
Johnson, who finished the game with 104 yards on 30 carries in addition to a jump-pass touchdown, said he expects to be able to play Saturday. Malzahn attributes his return from injury to both experience and innate toughness.
“He’s not just a veteran guy, he’s one of the better players in college football right now,” Malzahn said. “He’s a great competitor, like I said before. This is a great game and he’ll do whatever he can.”
Johnson is questionable to practice Tuesday, while Malzahn said the running back has improved each day since Saturday’s victory. In preparation of Johnson’s potential absence in Atlanta, Kam Martin will get practice reps with the first team offense.
Defensive back Tray Matthews, who has missed games earlier in the season with his own shoulder injury, expects Johnson to return regardless of pain.
“He’ll be fine,” Matthews said. “It’s the SEC Championship. You’ve got to suck that up. He’ll be fine.”
With a rematch with Georgia, and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff, Malzahn hopes to rely on quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who he said has improved since Auburn’s loss to then-No. 2 Clemson.
“If you have a chance to win a championship in our league, your quarterback has to play at a high level, and he’s done that so far, and we’ll need it again Saturday,” Malzahn said.
Malzahn added that Stidham’s ability to make “every throw” has opened up the playbook for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
After defeating both top-ranked Georgia and Alabama at home in marquee rivalry matchups, Malzahn said he was impressed at the level his defense was playing, especially his defensive line.
“They are playing at a high level and at times they are dominating,” he said. “If you can control the line of scrimmage and put pressure on the quarterback, then that is as good as it gets.”
Auburn is the 11th ranked defense in the nation, allowing 303.3 yards per game. In its win over the Crimson Tide, the Auburn defense held Alabama scoreless in the first quarter for the first time this season.
The Tigers will have to return their focus to the Georgia running back tandem, he said.
“You’re talking about two of the more talent running backs in the country on the same team,” he said. “You have to stop the run.”
Bulldog running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 48 rushing yards on 20 carries in Georgia’s earlier loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
After earning Auburn’s first victory in the Iron Bowl since 2013, Malzahn said this team has been more stable than the one that last made the conference championship.
“We got in here Sunday and the team meeting flipped the page,” he said. “They will not be distracted, I will tell you that.”
Following the team’s loss in Baton Rouge, Matthews said the SEC Championship never left the mind of the players.
“We’ve been through hell and back, and now, it’s just a beautiful thing we have going on here at Auburn,” Matthews said.