AUBURN — There is no such thing as a good time for an injury to occur. Injuries in sports are something no one ever wants to see, no matter which teams they coach, play for or root for.
Auburn defensive end Marlon Davidson made that pretty clear when he responded to Florida coach Dan Mullen calling his hit of quarterback Kyle Trask “dirty.”
So when Kam Martin received a text from coach Cadillac Williams on Tuesday morning telling him to pray for running back JaTarvious Whitlow, who was undergoing knee surgery after suffering an injury late in Saturday’s 24-13 loss at Florida, it hurt. “It sucks,” the senior said. “Boobee is one of our guys.”
When senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown found out from reporters that Auburn’s leading rusher would be sidelined for the next four to six weeks, he shook his head.
“It’s a brutal sport. It’s a collision sport,” he said. “With that, it comes with it.”
But if that injury to Whitlow had to happen, then this point in the Tigers’ season might be the best time for it. Tuesday marked the first of their three bye-week practices in the first of their two bye weeks (they have another Nov. 9). They don’t have to play again until a week from this Saturday, on Oct. 19, against a 2-3 Arkansas team that is winless so far in SEC play.
Having that second bye week could give Whitlow enough time to return for Auburn’s Nov. 16 home date with Georgia, which comes a little more than five weeks into that four-to-six-week timetable.
The first one gives the Tigers an extra week of practice to figure out how they’ll replace the running back who has accounted for 40.6 percent of their rushing attempts (110 of 271), 39.4 percent of their rushing yards (544 of 1,379) and half of their rushing touchdowns (7 of 14) in the three games he will almost definitely miss — at Arkansas, at LSU and at home against Ole Miss.
In other words, it gives them time to get true freshman D.J. Williams ready for what could be his first turn in the spotlight.
“This is a big week for him,” head coach Gus Malzahn said.
Williams is the least experienced of Auburn’s five healthy running backs, a group that also includes Martin, sophomore Shaun Shivers, junior Malik Miller and redshirt freshman Harold Joiner. But each of those players already seems to have a role.
Martin will probably ascend to No. 1 on the depth chart, but he’s been at his best during his career when he’s been the change-of-pace back, like he was for Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson in 2016, Johnson in 2017 and Whitlow last season. At 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds with great straight-line speed, that role suits him — he has topped 15 carries in a game just four times in his four-year career, but averages 5.5 yards per attempt.
The senior ranks second among the team’s running backs with 34 carries for 174 yards and two touchdowns this season and was the only other running back to carry the ball Saturday at Florida, doing so five times for 29 yards (to Whitlow’s 18 for 81).
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Malzahn said. “He’s played some big games. And he has experience. There’s nothing like experience.”
The 5-foot-7, 179-pound Shivers has played a similar role over the course of his two-year career — he ranks third with 144 yards on 27 carries this season, but he has never carried the ball more than 13 times in a game (which he did against Alabama State last year) and did not see the field against the Gators.
Miller has spent much of this season serving as Auburn’s third-down back, providing blocking on passing downs as well as four carries for 16 yards and three catches for 38 yards as true freshman quarterback Bo Nix’s safety valve out of the backfield.
The versatile Joiner has played sort of a gadget role, which was somewhat expected entering the season — he has carried the ball four times for 19 yards (all against Kent State) and has caught four passes for 40. But the redshirt freshman hasn’t recorded a touch in either of the previous two games, and the fact that Malzahn mentioned him being a part of Tuesday’s “young guys” scrimmage at practice indicates that he might be lower down on the depth chart than some of his counterparts.
Williams, on the other hand, got some chances to rotate in with the first-team offense on Tuesday. The true freshman doesn’t have a role yet, but from a talent standpoint, the feeling around the program is that he might be better suited than any of those other four running backs to be a true three-down workhorse.
“I honestly feel like D.J. Williams is wise beyond his years. He did not look like your typical 17-year-old freshman. The lights didn’t look too big for him,” Cadillac Williams said during preseason camp. “He has picked up the system really well. I am very high on D.J. I love his attitude and his work ethic.”
Not much was known about D.J. Williams when he committed on the first day of the early signing period, Dec. 19 of last year. He spent his senior season playing mostly quarterback in the small town of Lake Placid, Fla., and, for a long time, had only two offers — Appalachian State (where he was originally pledged) and UMass. At the time he joined Auburn’s 2019 recruiting class, he had only just recently gotten a third star from recruiting services.
But Williams impressed coaches during spring practice and was the most productive running back on the team during April’s A-Day spring game, rushing 11 times for a game-high 57 yards. The only thing that has kept the 5-foot-10, 216-pound running back from doing more early on in his rookie campaign is his health.
Williams underwent a shoulder procedure following the spring that limited him to non-contact work at the start of preseason camp. He was healthy at the start of the season but suffered an injury during practice before the Tulane game, sidelining him for that one and the next one against Kent State — two perfect opportunities for a freshman to get his feet wet. He didn’t record the first carries of his career until two weeks ago against Mississippi State, when he ran seven times for 32 yards in the fourth quarter of a rout.
“D.J. Williams is a guy we’ve been talking about for a while and he looked like he was pretty healthy today,” Malzahn said. “We rotated him in there with, really, the first group some, too. And we’ll continue to do that, you know, throughout this week.”
All five of those running backs should be involved in some capacity moving forward, likely with bigger roles than the ones they have been playing while Whitlow (rightfully) dominated carries. The Tigers had already placed an emphasis on rotating multiple players through the position in order to keep their workhorse fresh for the second half of the season, and that effort might only increase now that he’s on the shelf.
Martin should definitely see an uptick in carries, and Shivers could, as well. Miller could inherit the percentage of the third-down work Whitlow soaked up. Joiner could get an opportunity to run the Wildcat package, unless Malzahn decides to use backup quarterback Joey Gatewood in that role.
But the player who stands to gain the most until Whitlow is able to return might be Williams. If the plan wasn’t already to get the now-healthy true freshman more involved after the bye week, it seems like it should be now.
“D.J. is a baller. He’s ready to step up,” Martin said. “Everybody is ready to step up. Whoever’s number is called to step up, we’re all going to be ready.”