Why this Auburn running back might look best as redshirt in 2018

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Will there be a running back in this class redshirt? Who will benefit from redshirting? — @jeremyminton9

AUBURN, Ala. — After officially saying goodbye to Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway at the end of last season, the door is now wide open for a new Auburn running back to take over the Tigers backfield. And despite losing two 1,000-yard rushers, Gus Malzahn isn’t limited when it comes to options for 2018.

“We’ve got some position battles, obviously, at the running back position. That’ll be a big key for this spring,” Malzahn said early during Auburn’s spring camp.  “Tim [Horton] has got a great plan as far as rotating those guys. That group will probably get tackled more than we have in the past, but that will be by design to make sure we leave spring with some kind of depth chart, some kind of order.”

So, of the current players on Auburn’s roster, who is the most likely to don a redshirt in the coming year?

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First off, Malzahn isn’t going to provide a definite answer to this question anytime soon. Fans will hear that Auburn’s staff is uncertain about redshirts well into the fall — that’s simply how the process works. Instead, the head coach will boast about the promise all of his players show, because well, they all possess it.

Malzahn also is going to test Auburn’s current running back room more than he has in past seasons in order to find one person who can manage most of the load.

“I’d say those five or six guys, all of them right now, have a legitimate shot to try to be the next [standout back], he’s one of those guys,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to do more live stuff than we have in the past, and that’s by design, too. We need to get those guys tackled. We’ve got to see who can pass protect. We’ve got to see who can play without the ball. Like I said the other day, I mean, it’s wide open.”

While the head coach won’t be sharing his plans to redshirt anyone anytime soon, it’s possible to infer who might be the likely candidates.

Here’s a look at Auburn’s scholarship running backs and how they performed last in 2017:

Name Year Height Weight Yds/Attmpts in 2017
Kam Martin Junior 5-10 182 453/74
Malik Miller RS-Soph. 5-11 225 135/34
Devan Barrett Sophomore 6-0 185 79/14
JaTarvious Whitlow RS-Freshman 6-0 216 N/A
 Asa Martin Freshman 5-11 200 N/A
CJ Tolbert Senior 5-7 187 N/A

Kam Martin, Malik Miller and Devan Barrett have the most experience, but JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow is who reporters have heard most about this spring. If reviews by quarterback Malik Willis are any indication — and teammates typically give pretty accurate scouting reports — that bodes well for Whitlow.

That really leaves Asa Martin. While lots of Auburn fans would love nothing more than to see the true freshman step in and dominate, he’ll likely end up redshirting during his first season on The Plains.

This is less about Martin’s aptitude and more about what Auburn has seen from its other backs thus far. Things can change over the course of a summer, especially when the Tigers are so eager to find a go-to back, but a redshirt wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Decatur, Ala., native.

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There’s no doubt that Martin is a player that could have an immediate impact depending on how quickly he acclimates to his new home away from home. Auburn fought hard for one of the state’s top prospects for a reason.

“Talking about these guys briefly, starting with Asa Martin, a running back. He’s very versatile,” Malzahn said. “He’s a guy that really reminds us of Kerryon Johnson. He can run. He can catch. He’s a very good pass protector. We’re very excited about him.”

But just because Malzahn is genuinely ready to watch Martin work doesn’t mean it has to be in the coming year. In reality, Martin would benefit most from perfecting his body and the offense and letting other guys with credible experience carry the load.

It doesn’t make sense for the newcomer to rush into the lineup unless Auburn can’t get production from the older players in its running back room. Chances are, with Tim Horton leading the way, the Tigers will find someone they can depend on.

For yet another reason Martin would be smart to redshirt, look no further than Kerryon Johnson.

Johnson saw valuable playing time during his freshman year in 2015, but made his biggest impact on special teams. It was that experience that helped Johnson earn the starting job in 2016 before he had to start dealing with nagging injuries.

The soft-spoken Martin has been compared to Johnson when the topic of leadership has come up, too.

“He’s been terrific as well. Just kind of seeing him run at team practices, Mat drills, he’s more of a quiet guy,” Chandler Cox said. “Kind of like Kerryon was, more quiet, just puts his head down and works. So he’ll definitely help us out for sure this year.”

While Cox offers a positive review about Martin, there’s a chance the freshman will have a hard time adopting the leadership role needed to guide Auburn through the SEC — especially during a year when it has to travel to Georgia and Alabama for road games.

If the new kid on the block is able to sit back and take in his initial fall in orange and blue, one thing for certain is that his time will come.

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