Kerryon Johnson made his mark at Auburn running between the tackles. He earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors this past season after rushing for nearly 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns.
He caught the eye of Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn enough that Quinn moved up in last month's draft to select Johnson in the second round.
Johnson led the SEC in rushing (115.9 yards per game) and all-purpose yards (132.1) in 2017. He was ninth in the nation with 18 rushing touchdowns, and led the SEC with 20 total touchdowns.
He was good in the between-the-tackles role Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn laid out for him, but Detroit’s plan for Johnson is a little bit different.
“They basically run between the guards, so I think this guy’s very versatile that he can run inside, but I think we’ll use him more to run outside as well,” Quinn said after drafting Johnson.
The addition of Johnson and veteran LeGarrette Blount in free agency gives Detroit a much more physical presence at the position to run both inside and outside. Johnson and Blount could end up being the primary ball carriers, with the 247-pound Blount being a terrific power option that can also run outside, and Johnson expected to handle more of the outside runs with the ability to also run inside as well.
The Lions ran up the middle 77 times last season vs. 142 times outside to the right and 144 times outside to the left, per STATS, INC.
The additions of Johnson and Blount was part of the puzzle of revamping Detroit’s run game so they can be more consistent and explosive running in all three directions.
The team also hired new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson to improve the blocking schemes, drafted interior lineman Frank Ragnow in the first round as a physical interior presence upfront, and even added what Quinn believed to be the best fullback in the draft to the roster on Day 3.
“I’m happy to be a piece of anybody’s puzzle,” Johnson said after Detroit drafted him. “I’m ready to come in and work. That’s what I feel like this organization loves to do is work. That’s what everybody knows Detroit for, being a hardworking city and I’m looking forward to stepping in that and doing the same.”
Johnson has a patient running style the Lions think they can utilize on the edge with some success.
“He’s a very patient runner initially, but when he sees the hole he’s got great acceleration and he really finishes runs very well,” Quinn said.
“He’s a little bit, I’d say, of an upright runner initially, but when it’s time to get his pads down, he gets his pads down and gets yards after contact and finishes runs very well. So, that combined with good speed, good vision, you know, slashing style would be something that we’ve talked about that kind of can categorize his running style as well.”
Johnson had a very good college career running up the middle between the tackles, but as a professional, he's going to be asked to also stretch the defense and be a much more versatile runner.