ATLANTA (AP) - The biggest key to Auburn’s offensive success, running back Kerryon Johnson, says he’s “running like my old self” and eager to play in Monday’s Peach Bowl against Central Florida.
“I feel 100 percent, finally, or as close to 100 percent as you can get at this point,” Johnson said Saturday. “I felt really good. I’ve been running like my old self and making moves like my old self. It’s giving me confidence and making me happy, and I’m ready to see what I can do in the real game now.”
The health of Johnson is crucial to No. 7 Auburn’s hopes to keep pace with No. 10 Central Florida, the nation’s top-scoring team.
Johnson led the SEC in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards per game. He was chosen the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year and second-team All-America by The Associated Press.
Johnson hurt his ribs and right shoulder in Auburn’s 26-14 win against Alabama to close the regular season and wasn’t fully recovered for the Tigers’ 28-7 loss to Georgia in the SEC championship game. He ran for only 44 yards on a season-low 13 carries against the Bulldogs.
Auburn is still without running back Kamryn Pettway , who didn’t travel with the team to the bowl after missing the last five games with a broken shoulder blade.
Johnson’s teammates and coaches agree he has looked strong in practice.
“Obviously, whenever he’s on the field 100 percent, it’s a totally different feeling out there,” said Auburn left tackle Austin Golson at Saturday’s news conference. “You know you’ve got him back there. I mean, there’s no question in my mind he’s the best back in the country.”
“Appreciate that,” said Johnson, who shared the podium.
“I was kidding,” said Golson with a laugh.
Having Johnson on the field brightens the mood for the Tigers, but the remaining concern will be how the running back responds to hits in the game. Coach Gus Malzahn said Wednesday he has kept the junior out of contact drills.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said Johnson hasn’t missed a bowl practice.
“He’s been great,” Lindsey said Saturday. “Practiced every day. Looks like the old Kerryon to me. Excited to get him back out on the field.”
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham said it’s a good sign Johnson has been “running around a lot, smiling a lot.”
“He likes to do that,” Stidham said. “So you know, it’s been good having him back healthy and everything. I think it’s pretty obvious to see what he brings to the offense every day.”
Johnson’s role is also obvious to the Knights.
“He definitely presents a lot, a lot of issues, and I have nothing but the most respect for him,” said Central Florida defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “He’s a great football player. But we need to do our job and if we can do our job, then we’re going to be happy at the end of the game.”
Johnson’s 17 rushing touchdowns rank seventh in the nation. He has 1,320 yards rushing and 188 yards receiving with two touchdowns.
“Watching film on him, he can make good cuts and break tackles, so as a defense, you have to really rally to the ball and make sure we support each other every step of the way,” said Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
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