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Meet Kerryon Johnson, Auburn’s sudden Heisman contender, real quickly

Can he do what Auburn’s Tre Mason did in 2013?

Georgia v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Auburn had a middling offense in 2015 and 2016. In the Tigers’ emergence as a playoff contender this year, two players have been key. One is Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, the latest in a long line of Gus Malzahn transfer acquisitions at quarterback.

The other is junior running back Kerryon Johnson. Johnson is Auburn’s engine, and he’s threatening to be Auburn’s second Heisman finalist running back of the last four years to suddenly storm toward New York by closing strong (Tre Mason, 2013).

Johnson has contributed for three seasons. He’s just now made a leap.

Johnson was a can’t-miss recruit in the class of 2015. Classified as an “athlete” by many evaluators, he was the No. 43 overall player in the class on the 247Sports Composite. He picked the Tigers over Florida State, Alabama, and scores of others.

As an Auburn freshman, Johnson got 66 touches (52 of them runs) and totaled 367 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. His per-carry average was 4 yards, and he wasn’t an explosive runner. On runs where Johnson got beyond 5 yards, considered the responsibility of his linemen, he only averaged 2.3 more per carry. He struggled to break off big runs when he spelled veterans Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson.

Johnson’s made steady progress. He became a little more explosive both last year and this year, to the point that Johnson’s average 5-yard-plus carry is now a 10.5-yarder. If you don’t get to Johnson at the line, he’ll burn you for a big chunk.

He enters Saturday’s Iron Bowl averaging 5.3 yards per carry this season, a career high.

He’s punched in 18 touchdowns, 16 of them on the ground. And he’s come on strong lately, with 449 ground yards in Auburn’s last three games. That includes 137 against UL-Monroe, which is whatever, but also huge games against Texas A&M and Georgia.

Johnson is listed at 6’ and 212 pounds. He profiles neither as a little scat back or a big power back. He’s somewhere in between, with solid receiving ability to supplement a hard-charging running style.

If Johnson closes strong, there’s some chance he’s a Heisman finalist.

He won’t win the award. This is likely Baker Mayfield’s year, and several running backs — Stanford’s Bryce Love, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley — have finalist cases.

But if Johnson posts a huge game to catalyze an Iron Bowl win, he’ll keep himself alive. If he does the same thing in an SEC Championship Game rematch with Georgia, he’ll be in even better shape.