Cadillac Williams broke the news to Auburn’s running backs through a group text Tuesday morning.
The Tigers’ first-year running backs coach informed his players that leading rusher Boobee Whitlow was set to undergo surgery on his left knee, which he injured late during the team’s 24-13 loss to Florida last weekend. The message of the text was straightforward: “Pray for Boobee.”
The subtext of the message was subtle: With Whitlow set to miss four to six weeks while recovering, it was time for the rest of the room to step up and fill that void in Auburn’s offense.
“Our room has been real close since Coach Lac (Williams) has been here,” senior Kam Martin said. “All of us are close. Everybody is ready to step up. Whoever’s number is called to step up, we’re all going to be ready.”
The loss of Whitlow for at least the next month is a brutal one for Auburn. The redshirt sophomore was the team’s leading rusher and one of the top running backs in the SEC. Through six games, he rushed for 544 yards and a league-leading seven touchdowns.
His 90.67 rushing yards per game ranked fifth in the SEC, while his 544 yards was second in the conference. His 110 carries also led the SEC, albeit in one more game than the No. 2 running back in that category, Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill.
Whitlow’s absence leaves a sizeable void in Auburn’s offense, as he was the team’s No. 1 running back, the only proven every-down back and the Tigers’ go-to Wildcat option.
“It sucks,” Martin said. “Boobee is one of our guys. He led the league in rushing (touchdowns) and stuff, so it sucks. Just got to step up.”
Auburn has no shortage of options at running back with Whitlow out. This is, after all, why Williams wanted to focus more on developing depth in the backfield and rotating running backs after taking over the position group this spring.
The most experienced option is Martin, the lone senior at the position for Auburn and the team’s third-leading rusher behind Whitlow and quarterback Bo Nix. Martin has rushed for 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 34 carries this season while rotating behind Whitlow, and he’s the only running back on the roster with experience being the lead back at the college level.
While Martin has largely been a rotational piece at running back during his career, he has had a handful of games where he was the featured option. He had 21 carries for 176 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman against Alabama A&M, 14 touches for 136 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Southern as a sophomore, and games with 22 and 24 carries last season against Washington and Southern Miss, respectively. In all, Martin has had 10 career games with double-digit carries and is the most experienced running back on the Tigers’ roster.
He’s also the likely de-facto starter in the backfield once Auburn returns to action after the bye week.
“I would say I am ready — ready for the challenge,” Martin said. “I did it before. I am just ready to step up. No pressure, no doubt. I will be ready to step up.”
The 5-foot-10, 189-pounder won’t be alone in picking up the load with Whitlow out. Auburn has four other running backs who could all feature into the backfield during the second half of the season: sophomore Shaun Shivers, redshirt junior Malik Miller, redshirt freshman Harold Joiner and true freshman D.J. Williams.
Shivers has been the third piece in the rotation since last season, when he rushed for 371 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. This year, however, his role has taken a bit of a step back, as he has just 27 carries for 144 yards through the first half of the season.
“Shivers is a guy that has played quality times this year,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He played last year. He played in some big games.”
Miller has been used almost exclusively as Auburn’s third-down back given his proclivity in pass protection and ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The 5-foot-11, 235-pounder has just four carries for 16 yards but has added three receptions for 38 yards this season. He will likely still be used in a similar role with Whitlow sidelined.
The most intriguing option with Whitlow out, and the player who could stand to benefit the most from the opportunity presented by the injury is D.J. Williams, the true freshman who impressed coaches and teammates throughout spring practices. D.J. Williams is most comparable to Whitlow in terms of build — he’s 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds — and ability as a three-down back.
The former four-star prospect has only appeared in three games this season due to a hip pointer that limited him early on, and he has only registered carries in one of the team’s first six games. That came against Mississippi State, when he recorded seven touches for 32 yards, including a long of 9 yards. He performed well during A-Day, as well, totaling 11 carries for 57 yards during the Tigers’ spring game.
“DJ. is a baller — he’s ready to step up,” Martin said. “All of the guys in that room can lead, but D.J. has been doing his thing.”
The bye week will be particularly big for D.J. Williams and Joiner, who has four carries for 19 yards and four receptions for 40 yards this season. Both of the freshmen will see increased reps during practice the next two weeks — and that included a scrimmage Tuesday when the team reconvened.
“He is going to be special, you know,” Martin said of Joiner. “He is going to be good.”
Both Joiner and D.J. Williams, along with backup quarterback Joey Gatewood, are options as the team’s Wildcat quarterback with Whitlow out. Gatewood obviously has had a package that Malzahn has used for him, while Joiner saw time in the preseason at Wildcat and scored his lone touchdown of 2018 out of the formation. Williams, meanwhile, played quarterback in high school and has experience receiving snaps.
Making up for Whitlow’s impact in the offense will be no easy task for Auburn, but the one fortunate thing for the Tigers is the timing of the injury. While certainly not ideal, at least Malzahn and the team have the bye week to figure things out before the second half of the season gets underway--as well as a handful of options to choose from moving forward.
“There’s definitely enough ball to go around,” Cadillac Williams said in August. “The ball is going to find whoever puts in the work, and whoever wants it. So, I mean, who knows how this thing is going to play out. I’m sure it could game-by-game basis, how guys (are) doing. Who’s hot.
“But we want to keep our guys fresh, and we want to have a couple guys that’s ready to play. Because in the SEC, backs (are) going to get banged up.”