(photo:Julie Bennett, al.com)
The NFL Draft is four weeks away and this year the first running back expected to be taken is Auburn’s Tre Mason. Last year Mason astounded all with his 23 touchdowns and 1,816 yards rushing. Tre was the leading rusher on the No.1 rushing team in the nation. A feat that made him a Heisman finalist.
He leaves behind a legacy as one of the greatest running backs to ever play at ‘Running Back U.” His early departure for the pro’s leaves some big shoes to fill. However, the good news is – Auburn’s cupboard is full of talent. In fact, Auburn has enough stallions in the stable that promising sophomore Jonathan Ford has been permanently moved to the defense.
Looking over the list, the number one contender has to be senior Cameron Artis-Payne. He started last season sharing the carries with Mason before Tre claimed sole possession of the role. He had two 100 yard games and finished the year with 610 yards and six touchdowns.
Artis-Payne is feeling very confident this spring. Although he recognizes he’s in a race to be Mason’s successor, he said at the beginning of spring practice that he wasn’t worried about the competition. “I just feel like I’m not going to lose.” He added, “I’m trying to be the first 2,000-yard running back in the SEC.” Got to love that attitude.
Then there is, junior Corey Grant who made a name for himself as the Tigers homerun threat last year – mostly on speed sweeps. Grant had almost a ten yard per carry average, rushing for 647 yards and six touchdowns. Some think the 5’11″, 203lb. back is not big enough to take the pounding in the middle.
However, that was also a concern about Tre Mason early in his career before he put on extra weight. News out of Auburn is that Grant has also added pounds to prove he can be an every down back. Pound for pound, he may be the strongest player on the team; and Corey said going into spring that it’s his goal to prove to the coaches that he can carry the load.
Third on most people’s list is Peyton Barber. The 5’11″, 230lb. Redshirt Freshman may be the surprise of the group. Peyton has a legitimate shot at being number one. He has the build to run it through the tackles and he has the added benefit of having played scout team running back last year. That experience gives him a year of playing against college level talent. Running backs coach, Tim Horton believes Barber has the power and the moves to be a top college back. Reports out of Auburn say he has wowed both the coaches and teammates in spring practice.
Add to this list 5-star running back Racean ‘Roc’ Thomas who will be enrolling this summer and you can easily see the coaches have several strong options to fill the vacuum left by Mason. Although Thomas hasn’t played against college level talent, the 5’11″, 200 lb.back finished his high school career at Oxford High with 6,169 yards, 82 touchdowns, and was named ‘Mr. Alabama Football.’
There is little doubt that the next Auburn running back will be a 1,000 yard rusher. To start with Malzahn has said the 2014 offense will include more of a passing game which should keep the defensive back field from playing close, giving the running backs more room to gain yardage.
Moreover, in eight years as a college offensive coordinator or head coach, Gus Malzahn has had nine players produce eleven 1,000 yard seasons. That fact coupled with a more open passing attack assures that whoever wins the job … Will pick up where Tre Mason left off.