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Healthy Kamryn Pettway makes Auburn better now and in 2017

Kamryn Pettway not only will play in Auburn's bowl game but will return in 2017. Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire

Leonard Fournette already has announced that he won’t play for LSU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The junior running back has battled injuries all year, and he wants to turn his focus to preparing for the next level.

Meanwhile, fellow SEC running back Kamryn Pettway is champing at the bit to play in Auburn’s bowl game.

Like Fournette, Pettway had a chance to leave early for the NFL. He wasn’t going to be a first-round pick, but the redshirt sophomore was listed among Mel Kiper Jr.’s top 10 running backs after a breakout season that saw him eclipse 1,000 yards. In fact, he had more yards (1,123) and averaged more yards per game (140) than Fournette this season.

But Pettway isn’t leaving early. He didn’t even bother filling out the paperwork to get his draft grade. He announced two weeks ago that he was coming back to Auburn.

“I think it’s really good,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think any time a key piece of your offense makes that call – he’ll have a chance next year, and obviously staying healthy, there’s a chance he could have a super season. He’ll be one of our leaders, too, coming back. So, I think it’s a very good thing for us next year.”

As for the “unfinished business” part about his tweet, Pettway told reporters last week that he wants to go through a complete season where he’s fully healthy. In what was his first year at running back, the former H-back missed three games due to injury and wasn’t at 100 percent in the season finale against Alabama. Imagine his numbers had he played all 12 games.

“I feel like I’m capable to do a lot more than I did this year,” Pettway said.

We should see the healthy version of Pettway when Auburn plays Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. Pettway has been practicing in full the last two weeks and says he’s fully recovered from a pulled quad he suffered in the second half against Vanderbilt.

“He looks really good,” fellow Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson said. “He’s been working on getting the explosiveness [back] just coming off an injury and the break, not playing football at all. But he’s looked really good, and I think he’s going to be back in midseason form.”

With the exception of Malik Miller, who injured his knee earlier in the season, Auburn should have all of its running backs at full strength for the bowl game. The last time Pettway, Johnson, Stanton Truitt and Kameron Martin all got through an entire game without an injury, the Tigers rushed for 307 yards in a 40-29 win on the road at Ole Miss.

Plus, with Pettway’s decision to come back, every Auburn running back is expected to return to school in 2017. That’s a stark contrast from the year before when the team’s top three rushers all left for various reasons.

“Just having a guy [like Pettway] back with experience is huge,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure who we have coming in, but just having a guy back that’s played a whole season now at running back – we’ll have two next year, along with Malik and Kam [Martin] – we’ll have a lot more experience than we did coming into this year. We’ll know what we’re working with.”

It’s a shame we won’t get to see Fournette play one final time. But college football fans can still take solace in watching Pettway, a 235-pound bruiser, run over defenders in the bowl game, as well as all of next season.