ATLANTA — As Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn addressed the media in advance of Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, fans and media members alike waited eagerly for an update on the status of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson and his shoulder injury.
Malzahn said that Johnson has practiced on a limited basis this week and reiterated that he will be a game-time decision.
“We're going to see how he is in pregame,” Malzahn said. “It will be a game-time decision. Obviously, you know how important he is to our success, and he's helped get us here. We're very confident in our other running backs if he can't go. We'll see happens.
With Johnson’s status still up in the air, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has made sure Johnson’s injury hasn’t affected his team’s preparation.
“I've made a big effort to not let [Johnson’s status] be the focal point because they have a physical offensive line,” Smart said. “They've got a really good quarterback. They've got speed at wideout. They've got other running backs, and they have receivers they use like running backs. So they're going to find a way. Gus has always found a way to run the ball some kind of way.”
Smart was quick to credit Auburn’s rushing attack even without Johnson, but added that he fully expects Johnson to play.
“I expect to see Kerryon back there, to be honest with you,” Smart said. “That's what we've prepared for. They've got other guys that block. Gus [Malzahn] has had this situation in the years I've gone against him multiple times where they might not have had a feature back. They use other players. They've got Chandler Cox. They've got good football players. They'll have somebody back there that can protect if it's not Kerryon, but I fully expect it to be him.
If Johnson is unable to play, the Tigers will not replace him with just one running back, relying instead on a running back by committee approach with Malik Miller, Kam Martin, and Devan Barrett.
Miller, Martin, and Barrett have just 24 combined carries the past three games, but Malzahn was quick to express confidence in them.
“Malik [Miller] and Kam Martin has gotten a lot of reps in practice probably the last five weeks,” Malzahn said. “They've gotten a lot of reps in fall camp. We're very confident in both those guys. Devan Barrett is a guy you could see on the field too. If [Johnson] can't go, we'll do it by committee, but we've got confidence in all those guys.”
Malzahn confirmed the exchange he had with Smart after Auburn’s 40-17 upset of Georgia on Nov. 11 where he told Smart he would see him in Atlanta.
“I think I said, hope to see you in Atlanta, but regardless, I'll just say this,” Malzahn said. “Kirby and I, we went against each other numerous times. We have a lot of respect for each other. I just had a feeling we'd play again.”
Malzahn was asked about the rumors tying him to the vacant head coaching position at Arkansas, but he did not comment on that or his reportedly ongoing contract negotiations with Auburn.
“I'm focused on this game. This is for the SEC Championship, and I'm the head coach of Auburn,” Malzahn said.