AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Kerryon Johnson wasn’t the most heralded tailback in the Southeastern Conference coming into this season, or even on his own team.
The running back for No. 10 Auburn has been the most prolific when healthy, however, despite missing two games and half of a third with a right hamstring injury.
Overshadowed entering the season by teammate Kamryn Pettway and other SEC runners, Johnson has delivered three straight huge performances for the Tigers leading up to Saturday’s game at LSU.
He has scored 11 of his nation-leading 12 rushing touchdowns during that stretch. That’s one more than he produced last season and more than nine SEC teams have managed.
“I start thinking what was I doing last year?” Johnson said, smiling. “I only had 11 all of last year so I must have been coasting all the way through last year. I’m just trying to keep it going, do what I can.”
He has taken over with Pettway missing two of the past three games with a lower right leg injury. Pettway was a first-team All-SEC performer last season but he and Johnson haven’t been healthy in the same game yet.
Pettway and LSU’s Derrius Guice , another talented runner, have both been slowed by injuries this season .
Georgia’s Nick Chubb is officially leading the SEC in rushing at 103 yards per game with eight touchdowns. Johnson has averaged 126 yards but has only played in four games and isn’t listed among the league’s stat leaders.
Johnson, who often takes direct snaps in the Wildcat formation, is coming off a career-high 204-yard, three-touchdown performance against Mississippi .
Malzahn and Johnson both say he has been inching closer to fully healthy but that the hamstring hadn’t fully healed.
“The unique thing, you look at the last three weeks you can tell that he hasn’t been 100 percent,” Malzahn said. “At Missouri he had a couple of chances to really hit some seams and really turn on the gas but he didn’t want to repull his hamstring so he kind of geared it down.
“Against Mississippi State a time or two you saw him break (free) and he kind of geared it down and then last week when he broke he was able to turn it loose. You can see he’s getting healthier.”
Malzahn called Johnson one of Auburn’s toughest players after the Mississippi game, when he had 28 carries.
Most probably wouldn’t have picked the 6-foot, 212-pounder to be the most productive LSU and Auburn back coming into this game. He certainly wasn’t the most hyped.
But besides his injury issues, Pettway was also suspended for the opener against Georgia Southern.
Johnson wasn’t the first back LSU nose tackle Greg Gilmore was looking for on film.
“I don’t really keep up with other teams, but I was watching the film looking for Pettway the whole time and didn’t see him,” Gilmore said. “I was like, ‘He must be hurt or something.’ But (Johnson’s) a good back, so we respect him in every kind of way.”
Guice, meanwhile, has been bothered by ankle and knee injuries since preseason practices in August. He missed the Troy game and hasn’t had a 100-yard performance since reaching that mark in each of the first two games.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he planned to show Guice one of his runs on the last drive of a win over Florida “where he ran up right in the middle, and he showed grit and he showed toughness and he showed LSU football, broke a couple of tackles.
It “was a sign that he can do it,” Orgeron said. “And I think it gave him confidence and it gave our whole team confidence.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.
More college football coverage: http://collegefootball.ap.org and www.Twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.