Kerryon Johnson remains 'game-time' decision; Georgia expects to see him play in SEC title game

Saturday, 02 December 2017, 08:05:53 AM. Gus Malzahn provided another update on Kerryon Johnson's status ahead of the SEC Championship Game.

Kerryon Johnson remains a game-time decision for Saturday's SEC Championship Game against Georgia.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn reiterated that the status of Johnson, who injured his shoulder in the second half of the Iron Bowl, remains undetermined approximately 24 hours out of the Tigers' matchup with Georgia for the conference title (3 p.m., CBS).

"As far as Kerryon is concerned, he did do some practice things on a limited basis," Malzahn said. "We're going to see how he is in pregame. It will be a game-time decision. Obviously, you know how important he is to our success, and he's helped get us here. We're very confident in our other running backs if he can't go. We'll see happens."

Johnson "banged up" his shoulder late in the third quarter of Auburn's 26-14 win against rival Alabama last week and then left the game late in the fourth quarter after going down to the turf on a run with limited contact.

Johnson has been a limited participant in practice this week, with Malzahn listing him as day-to-day earlier in the week before saying Thursday on "Tiger Talk" that he would be a game-time decision. Malzahn declined to get into how limited Johnson's range of motion has been in his right shoulder this week.

"I will tell you he was limited," Malzahn said. "He did do a few things. I'll be curious to see how he moves around in pregame. I'll be watching just like you. I know he wants to. He is a great competitor. He is extremely tough. But at the same time, we'll see, and we'll know more in pregame."

Hear what Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn had to say on the eve of the SEC Championship vs Georgia

Georgia coach Kirby Smart is preparing his team as if Johnson will play.

"They're going to find a way," Smart said. "Gus has always found a way to run the ball some kind of way. That stuff with Kerryon is beyond our control. It's not something we can control, and we really focus on the things that we can control -- like what is our mindset? What is our demeanor? What is our execution level? How are we going to play certain formations? How are we going to play on special teams?

"Those are things we can control. So I don't think we can let Kerryon's situation dictate to us how we prepare."

Johnson has spurred Auburn's offense this season, rushing for 1,276 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding another 187 receiving yards and two touchdowns, as well as a touchdown pass.

If Johnson is able to play on Saturday, he will be at less than 100 percent. SEC Nation analyst Marcus Spears, a former LSU defensive lineman, believes Georgia will try to test Johnson's shoulder -- within the legal boundaries of the rules -- during Saturday's SEC Championship Game.

"You dang right (you test him)," Spears said Friday. "It's unsaid, but you know that he's an integral part. You're never trying to hurt anybody; that's not what I'm saying, but (the defense) gonna make sure you're ready to go. Look, in this game, not having great players changes everything, right? If Kerryon is not healthy enough, if he comes out in warmups and he's not able to play, doesn't that change everything we said all week? It literally changes everything we talked about this Auburn team offensively the entire week.

"So I think as a defense -- aye, man, I'm gonna go see if this shoulder is alright. I'm gonna go see, when I hit him I'm going to hit him. I'm gonna hit him fair, and I'm going to hit him legal, but I'm gonna hit him."

Can Auburn beat Georgia without a healthy Kerryon Johnson?

Spears believes Johnson's health is the most important storyline on the field for the SEC title game. If Johnson is unable to go or is limited in any capacity, it drastically changes the complexion of the game and Auburn's offensive gameplan.

"I don't know if Jarrett Stidham is the same guy without Kerryon on the field," Spears said. "It translates even when he's not playing, because you can't run a lot of things that you want to do. The Wildcat is out the window. Like, we're not running that with freshman running backs; they don't understand how to do that. Kerryon makes a lot of plays on his own. I think he's been the best offensive player in the conference this year."

If Johnson is unable to take the field in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Malzahn said the Tigers will take a by-committee approach to the backfield, with sophomore Kam Martin, redshirt freshman Malik Miller and true freshman Devan Barrett in the mix. He added that all three have received increased practice reps over the last five weeks, which coincides with the broken shoulder blade sustained by redshirt junior Kamryn Pettway.

The biggest question for Auburn if the Tigers are without Johnson comes in pass protection, where the teams other three running backs have limited experience this season.

"I expect to see Kerryon back there, to be honest with you," Smart said. "That's what we've prepared for. They've got other guys that block. Gus has had this situation in the years I've gone against him multiple times where they might not have had a feature back. They use other players. They've got Chandler Cox. They've got good football players. They'll have somebody back there that can protect if it's not Kerryon, but I fully expect it to be him."

The uncertainty surrounding Johnson's status could also place limitations on Auburn's offense, which has been propelled by Johnson's breakout year and featured the Wildcat formation extensively with Johnson behind center. Malzahn declined to go into specifics about how that package would be affected, but asserted that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey "has got a good plan" and has considered all the "what-ifs" entering the game.

In recent years, Malzahn's offenses have struggled when a star offensive player has gone down with injury, whether it was Pettway and quarterback Sean White last year, or 2015 when running backs Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson had early-season injuries. Malzahn is confident that won't be the case this weekend if Johnson doesn't play.

"There's been some injuries to keep people at times," Malzahn said. "This team is different. I think everybody sees it. Any time you've got one of the best players in all of college football and you're not for sure if he's going to play, as a coach, it concerns you. But our team, I think we got depth. I really think that, if he can't go, our guys will rise to the occasion."

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde. 

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