Gus Malzahn expects Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, Kamryn Pettway to be ‘ready to play’ against Ole Miss

AUBURN, Ala. — Kerryon Johnson can feel that he’s getting healthier.

During a particular Week 5 run where a Mississippi State defender tripped him up, Johnson immediately saw a bright side.

“I wouldn’t have been able to run that far the week before,” Johnson said. “I know week by week it’s just getting better, getting better, getting better. One of these weeks I’ll be healthy and you’ll see what I can really do.”

Auburn is hoping it will have healthy running backs take the field sooner rather than later. And though Gus Malzahn wants to be “very smart” with his injured rushers, the head coach isn’t indicating he has plans to rest his two upperclassmen in the coming weeks.

“We’ll see where we’re at as he gets closer to the game,” Malzahn said of junior Kamryn Pettway, who has been dealing with plantar facitis. “At the same time, Kam Martin was banged up going into the last game, too. We were able to rest him. I think that’s good. But I really expect all the guys to be ready to play. It’s just a matter of how healthy we can get them before the game starts.”

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At this time last season Johnson had racked up 517 total yards after starting for Auburn in the backfield. Right now Johnson’s amassed 300 yards after missing games against Clemson and Mercer so far. He’s hoping he’s able to progress in the approaching stretch of conference play — and feels that’s possible.

“I’m getting back to the 90, 95 percent range,” Johnson said. “Practice today, Tuesday is the hard day, so this will be the telling day. But I’m feeling really good.”

There’s obvious frustration after Auburn’s 2016 season took a turn for the worst largely because of injuries that occurred on the offensive side of the ball. Still, there’s only so much the Tigers can do to combat the injury bug.

“Obviously, you can’t worry about injuries,” Johnson said. “You can’t predict them. You can’t tell them to stay away. They just happen. We just focus on getting better every week. If that happens? If somebody goes down, the next person has to rise to the previous standard that’s already been set. If they do that we don’t miss a beat.”

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All Johnson and Pettway can really do is “play our hardest every Saturday” and then spend ample amounts of time in the athletic training room.

Injured or “banged up” Auburn players typically rise early and head to the training room and it’s far from their only visit of the day during the school year (during the summer and fall camp student-athletes receive treatment even more).

Johnson says he undergoes treatment — that process usually entails loads of ice, stretching and “a lot of different exercises” — three times a day. It’s a necessary evil. That’s understood by all.

“So you just go whenever you can, basically,” Johnson said. “They make sure they get you over here and they make sure that you go. They definitely check up on it. They want you to be healthy, and that’s on us. We’re scholarship athletes here. We should be playing every Saturday, and treatment helps us do that.”

The sole person who understands Johnson’s frustrations best is likely Pettway. He voiced hopes of breaking single-season school rushing records during preseason camp. Instead of wowing he’s totaled 336 yards in a trio of appearances.

“Any time you come off the kind of season he did last year with those yards he put up, he comes into the season banged up here, obviously it’s frustrating,’ Johnson said. “Like I’ve always said, Kam is a smart man, he’s a grown man and he’s not going to let it get to him. He just knows that he’s got to do his rehab. He’s got to keep his mind in it when he gets the opportunity.”

Auburn’s coaches and players are confident in what the college football world will see when both rushers are healthy. They’re eagerly awaiting that time. And if and when the duo is back to its dynamic self, it could get interesting quick.

“He’s a competitor,” Malzahn said of Pettway. “He hasn’t been 100 percent any of the games yet. I know that’s been frustrating for him. But we’ve got to get him healthy. If we get him healthy, I think he’ll be in a good spot.”

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