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Trying to harness boobie's playmaking ability

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Auburn trying to harness JaTarvious Whitlow’s ‘unique’ playmaking ability | Football

Josh Vitale | AU Writer Follow on Twitter Like on Facebook

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JaTarvious Whitlow took the handoff from Malik Willis running right. Jamien Sherwood made first contact 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and pushed him back 3 more before the redshirt freshman running back shook loose of the true freshman safety.

That play began on the left hash at Auburn’s 30-yard line. Eight seconds later, “Boobee” was at the 25-yard line on the far-right side of the field. From there, he reversed field, shed a diving tackle attempt from defensive lineman Alec Jackson way back at the 17-yard line, and forced coach Gus Malzahn to backpedal out of the way as he made a beeline for the left sideline.

Whitlow cut back inside at the 20, juked diving linebacker Chandler Wooten at the 23 and made it another 8 yards upfield before finally getting tackled by safety Smoke Monday. He gained 1 yard to the 31. He went as far back as his own 13-yard line to get there.

Watching that first-quarter carry unfold from the sideline during Auburn’s April 7 A-Day game, running backs coach Tim Horton said his first reaction was “Well, this ought to be interesting.” It wasn’t something he hadn’t seen before. Whitlow did something similar during the Tigers’ first scrimmage two weeks earlier, only that time he sprinted more than 50 yards for a long touchdown. Those types of plays are littered all over his high school highlight tape.

“Sometimes I think he thinks he’s still back at LaFayette and he thinks he can just outrun everybody, and that’s not the case,” Horton said before speaking to the Jackson County Auburn Club in Scottsboro last month. “But he’s got a lot of talent.”

One of Horton’s jobs is to harness that talent. Whitlow was one of six players who spent the spring vying to help Auburn replace the departed Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway at running back. He doesn’t sit atop the depth chart — Kam Martin does as of now — but he may not be far behind.

You don’t tell an explosive athlete who passed for 2,292 yards, rushed for 2,147 more and scored 59 touchdowns as a senior quarterback down the road at LaFayette High to embrace the boring, uneventful mundane. It’s that playmaking ability that Horton said makes Whitlow “one of a kind in every way.”

But, as Malzahn said after A-Day, “you can’t make a living” reversing field and running backwards in the SEC.

“I think he just needs more experience and more carries between the tackles. I think he played quarterback in high school and he got some quarterback runs, but there’s nothing like getting that feel behind an offensive line playing tailback,” Malzahn said. “He does have a unique ability.”

For every play like the 1-yard gain on A-Day or the 50-plus-yard touchdown two weeks earlier, Horton said Whitlow has had plays in practice where what teammates have described as a “Madden”-like ability has cost him yards.

What the veteran coach has tried to help the young running back understand is that the SEC is a “North-South league.” Running sideline to sideline worked when Whitlow was the best athlete on field in Class 2A, but it won’t work nearly as much against LSU, Georgia or Alabama.

“They’re just too fast at every position on defense,” he said. “You’ve got to be one-cut runner, you’ve got to go North and South, you’ve got to have your pad level down, and if you do that, you’ve got a chance.”

And Horton does believe Whitlow has a chance. For a player who played quarterback in high school, signed as a three-star wide receiver and transitioned to running back last fall only to suffer an ankle sprain that hampered him for much of a redshirt year, he has made a remarkably fast rise up Auburn’s depth chart.

The 6-foot, 216-pound Whitlow carried 14 times for 98 yards on A-Day, and if he continues on the path he’s on over the summer and into the fall, he could be one of the first running backs into the game after Martin on Sept. 1 against Washington in Atlanta.

“He runs with a good pad level, I thought particularly for a player that’s never really played the position,” Horton said. “He displayed toughness. He was effective in short-yardage situations. He runs with a good pad level. He can make somebody miss. You know, I’d say good speed, not great speed, but I think he’s got a really good future.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog. To reach him by email, click here.

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