AUBURN — Auburn lost more than a game this past Saturday at Florida.
JaTarvious Whitlow, the team's leading rusher through six games this season, suffered a left knee injury during the 24-13 defeat that required him to undergo surgery on Tuesday, head coach Gus Malzahn announced. He will be sidelined for the next four to six weeks.
Malzahn said the injury occurred late in the game, but the team "didn't know exactly the severity of it" and that Whitlow was actually able to return after initially coming to the sideline. But the sophomore's knee was stiff when he woke up Sunday morning, and after the medical staff examined him, they felt like he needed to undergo a procedure.
Whitlow will almost certainly miss the next three games at Arkansas, at LSU and home against LSU, but the Tigers have another off week on Nov. 9, so it's possible that he could return in time for a Nov. 16 home date with Georgia — that would be a little more than five weeks into the four-to-six-week timetable.
But regardless of how long he's out, it's a brutal blow for Auburn's rushing attack — Whitlow's 110 carries through six games are more than the rest of the team's running backs combined. His 544 yards rank second in the SEC, and his seven rushing touchdowns rank first.
"Of course, he’s an impact player. I think everybody knows that," Malzahn said. "The good thing is we do have other guys that have experience."
Senior Kam Martin, the most experienced of those players, found out Tuesday morning when running backs coach Cadillac Williams sent a message to the position's group chat that said, "Pray for Boobee. He's having surgery."
Martin said he texted with Whitlow after hearing the news and planned to speak to him later, adding that "he'll be all right."
"It sucks," Martin said. "Boobee is one of our guys. "He led the league in rushing and stuff so it sucks. Just got to step up."
Martin ranks second among the team's running backs with 174 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries this season. Sophomore Shaun Shivers ranks third with 144 yards on 27 carries, though he did not play a single snap in the loss at Florida.
Junior Malik Miller has chipped in four carries for 16 yards and three catches for 38 as the team's third-down back. Redshirt freshman Harold Joiner has rushed four times for 19 yards and caught four passes for 40 — he was one of the young players that Malzahn said got to scrimmage during the team's first practice of the bye week on Saturday.
"We do have a deep group at running back," Malzahn said. "All those guys got a chance to mix in with the 1’s and 2’s today, and really, it’s a good week, off week, to get those other guys ready."
All four players could see their roles increase in Whitlow's absence. The name to watch, though, might be true freshman D.J. Williams — Malzahn said this "is a big week for him" to show what he's capable of.
Auburn really likes the four-star running back out of Sebring, Florida. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound rookie was arguably the team's most impressive rusher during April's A-Day spring game, turning 11 carries into a team-leading 57 yards.
Williams has gotten off to a slow start after undergoing a shoulder procedure after spring practice and missing time early in the season with an injury suffered during practice, but he recorded the first carries of his career two weeks ago against Mississippi State, rushing seven times for 32 yards.
He might be the back on the roster most capable of playing the three-down role Whitlow excelled in, and having two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 19 game at Arkansas gives the team more time to get him ready for a potentially larger role.
“D.J. 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.”
But Auburn would certainly rather it still be Whitlow leading the way. The coaching staff had been making an extra effort to rotate in more running backs in order to keep the sophomore fresh for late in the season — he had carried the ball no more than 18 times in any of Auburn's last four games after carrying 24 and 23 times in the first two.
Instead, for the fourth straight year, the Tigers will play at least part of the back half of the season without their leading rusher — Kamryn Pettway missed two November games in 2016 with a quad injury, Kerryon Johnson was severely hampered by a bad shoulder in the 2017 SEC Championship game, and Whitlow suffered an ankle injury on Oct. 20 of last year that slowed him down the stretch.
"We'll have a plan for Arkansas, and we'll continue to do that until we get him back," Malzahn said. "We do feel like he'll have a pretty good chance before the end of the season."