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March 26, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Running backs

This is the seventh of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: wide receivers/tight ends/H-backs.

Tre Mason flex

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com


AUBURN, Ala. – Against the SEC, Auburn’s ground game was horrendous. Against anybody else, it was heroic.

Other than possibly quarterback Jonathan Wallace, nobody’s performance was more night-and-day against conference and non-conference foes than Tre Mason, Onterio McCalebb and the men responsible for clearing their paths.

Leave it at this: strictly against non-conference opponents, Auburn ranking ninth in the country in rushing offense (and first among SEC teams) with 271.8 yards per game. But once in conference? That rating falls, plummets, crashes to 118th out of 124 FBS squads at a paltry 86.75 yards.

To be clear, it’s not like the Tigers’ non-SEC opponents were completely incompetent: Louisiana-Monroe and Clemson were each in the 50th percentile or better as far as stopping the run game.

It was just one of those things. Mason was somewhat effective against SEC defenses, but a consistent attack never surfaced, a major factor in Auburn’s first winless SEC campaign since 1980.

The threat of McCalebb’s pure speed is gone, and promising youngster Mike Blakely transferred out of the program, but Mason won’t necessarily become a workhorse. The 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 will be platooned with 2,000-yard junior college rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, who brings a more physical inside game to the table.

And don’t forget about the pair of incoming high schoolers, especially four-star Johnathan Ford and his home-run hitting ability.

Auburn can and will run the football. Nine 1,000-yard rushers in Gus Malzahn’s seven years at the collegiate level promise that. But it’s a matter of doing it against Alabama and Arkansas, not Alabama A&M and Arkansas State.

Part I: Defensive backs
Part II: Linebackers
Part III: Defensive line
Part IV: Special teams
Part V: Quarterbacks
Part VI: Offensive line

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Here’s a look at Auburn’s running backs, leading into spring football practices:

Who’s been playing: Tre Mason (jr.)

Who’s been waiting: Corey Grant (jr.)

Who’s out the door: Mike Blakely, Onterio McCalebb

Who’s in the door: Cameron Artis-Payne (Harrisburg, Pa.), Peyton Barber (Alpharetta, Ga.), Johnathan Ford (New Hope, Ala.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Tim Horton, 24th year (7th in SEC)

Who’d he replace, where is he now: Curtis Luper, TCU

Thoughts and musings:

Mason is supremely confident without being cocky, a kid who wouldn’t complain if the gameplan called for 25 carries a game. He’s the ideal hybrid back for this offense; he’s got the power to shake off tackle, the shiftiness to make people miss, and the speed to gash defenses for long gains.

Yet new RBs coach Tim Horton wouldn’t guarantee anything to Mason, who would seem to be the safest bet of anybody on offense or defense to retain his starting job. Maybe it’s coachspeak; or maybe it’s because Horton’s seen enough out of Artis-Payne to know he’s going to force his way into a featured role. With the benefit of spring to learn his role, Artis-Payne has a great chance to gobble double-digit carries a game this fall. Reporters haven’t had a chance to meet him yet, but seeing as Artis-Payne’s listed Auburn major is philosophy, he could be an interesting talker.


Corey Grant waits his turn. A former Alabama player who came back closer to his home of Opelika, Grant will likely retain his responsibility as a prime scout-team back. Of course, as physical as this sport is, Grant should be ready at all times; prospectively, he does bump one spot from No. 4 to No. 3 on the depth chart.

Peyton Barber, the last back not discussed yet, was injured his junior year of high school, but bounced back for a strong senior campaign. That was the explanation for his 3-star recruiting rating. We’ll see if that was deserved, or if Barber truly flew under the radar.

Statistically speaking:

2.59 – Yards per carry for Auburn in 2012 SEC games, the fifth-worst mark in Division I.

6.39 – Yards per carry for Auburn in 2012 non-conference game, the third-best mark in Division I. Again, it’s not like the Tigers played a bunch of high school opponents outside the SEC. Those splits are absolutely unreal.

289.9 – Rush yards per game by Auburn in 2010. Some guy named Cam had something to do with that, as did Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.

1002 – Total yards for Mason in 2012, one of 61 FBS runners to hit four digits.

36 – Combined lost yardage on negative plays for Mason, on 171 carries.

69 – Combined lost yardage on negative plays for McCalebb, on 94 carries.

170 – Total carries in eight SEC games.

1 – Rush for longer than 26 yards against SEC opponents (Mason, at Vanderbilt).

Good Twitter follows: Tre Mason @TreMason21 (8,737 followers) interacts with followers who shout him out, particularly pumping up as a possible Heisman contender. Cameron Artis-Payne @ThaRealKillaCam (2,335) already has his Auburn spirit in full swing. Also look for Corey Grant @CoreyGranttt (3,326) and Johnathan Ford @rudythebeast5 (2,493)

Say what? “I think you look at the NFL and the SEC – very rarely are you going to see a team with one guy that’s getting 35 carries. That just puts too many hits on that body.” – Horton

Georgia vs Auburn


  1. […] Part I: Defensive backs Part II: Linebackers Part III: Defensive line Part IV: Special teams Part V: Quarterbacks Part VI: Offensive line Part VII: Running backs […]

    Pingback by View Gus Malzahn press conference quotes | Blake Burgess, Erique Florence off the team | War Eagle Extra — March 26, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

  2. […] Part I: Defensive backs Part II: Linebackers Part III: Defensive line Part IV: Special teams Part V: Quarterbacks Part VI: Offensive line Part VII: Running backs […]

    Pingback by The final Auburn positional battles to watch: Wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs | War Eagle Extra — March 26, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

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