Since 2017 and 2016’s respective SEC rushing leaders Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway departed The Plains at the end of last season, Auburn’s running back race has been comprised of mostly speculation.
Fall camp provides some valuable insight, sure, but nothing is set in stone until Gus Malzahn releases that first depth chart.
For now, we’ll have to trust Tim Horton.
At Auburn’s annual assistant coach interview session Thursday, the Tigers’ running backs coach revealed that junior Kam Martin and redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow “have separated themselves” from the rest and would be the first pair of backs to see the field against No. 6 Washington.
“If we had to play tomorrow, there’s probably two that have separated themselves,” Horton said. “And that would be Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow.”
Martin is Auburn’s lead returning rusher and clear-cut favorite for the job since the spring. As a sophomore, the Texan had 74 carries for 453 yards and a pair of touchdowns and tacked on a receiving score.
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The hesitation surrounding Martin has always been his ability to run effectively between the tackles as a prototypical Malzahn-style workhorse. Horton has those same questions but has seen Martin progress in camp and display the No. 1 characteristic, in Horton’s book, to be an elite back: toughness.
“Kam’s one of (tough) those guys too,” Horton said. “If you look at his numbers in the weight room, he’s impressive. I haven’t even thought about that, but that’s something that’s good. The question for Kam is: Is he tough enough and can he stay healthy enough to be that 16, 18, 20-carry guy that you want the ability to have?”
Horton said he wants to limit Martin to less than 20 carries per game, a tactic that Auburn “wanted to do” with Johnson and Pettway but was restricted by injuries.
“He’s a great student of the game,” Horton said of Martin. “He wants to get better in every facet of it. I think from the time he got here until today, I see a more polished player, particularly as a pass receiver. We’ve really got a lot of confidence throwing the ball to him now as opposed to maybe when he first got here.
"He’s improved as a blocker. He’s certainly no Kam Pettway in terms of pass protection, but he has improved. He’s got a willingness to do it, which is probably the most important ingredient.”
Whitlow’s name appearing near the top of Horton’s projected depth chart comes as no surprise either. The freshman has been impressing coaches and teammates since Peach Bowl practices back in December 2017.
"From a physical standpoint, he's been the best one we've had,” Horton said of Whitlow. “He’s a very physical kid. He loves contact, whether it's a pass pro-drill or one-on-one tackle drill against the defense or inside drill, he thrives on the physical part of the game. And he's a competitor.”
That competitive nature has been vocally present in each of Auburn’s media viewing windows of fall practices, with Whitlow consistently yelling, “You gotta love it!” But it cost him in the Tigers’ most recent scrimmage with a fumble on an overextending run, per Horton.
"It was kind of an effort fumble," Horton said. "He had a hand on the ground and was trying to keep his balance, but that's something that he knows if you, do you don't get to play.”
After the first two backs, Horton said the offense would probably be looking at Asa Martin, Shaun Shivers, then walk-on C.J. Tolbert. Horton and the Auburn offense have been tremendously high on the trio of Whitlow, Shivers and Asa Martin since they arrived on campus.
“I’m really pleased with the young guys,” Horton said. “I think the future is really good at running back because I think we have three quality players that are tough kids, love the game, have football intelligence and can keep this group as one of the better ones in the league.”
But where’s junior Malik Miller? According to Horton, the Madison, Alabama, product who worked behind Kerryon Johnson in high school has been bit by the injury bug again, which has limited his scrimmaging in fall camp. Horton called it “an injury issue” while motioning to and twisting his left wrist.
That’s exactly why Horton expects Auburn to use a by-committee approach this year.
“The thing about the committee is that is gives you that safety net when injuries come, and they’re probably going to come,” Horton said. “Hopefully, we’ve got two or three guys that can perform at a high level.”
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