The Auburn Tigers suffered through a historically terrible 2012 season that resulted in head coach Gene Chizik being fired. Not a lot goes right during a season where you fail to win a conference game, but one bright spot was the play of running back Tre Mason. With Gus Malzahn bringing a new offense to town, will Mason have the chance to repeat his breakout 2012 performance?
Mason achieved a great deal on a Tigers’ offense that was limited on its very best day. He rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, extending Auburn’s consecutive seasons streak of 1,000-yard rushers up to four. Despite all of that, he’ll have to earn the carries to try extending that streak to five.
Malzahn has a reputation of using any player on his roster for whatever situation they are best equipped for. That doesn’t lend itself well to leaning on one running back through an entire season. If someone else on the roster shows a better ability to run between the tackles or to get to the edge or catch passes out of the backfield than Mason, you can bet Malzahn will turn to them in those situations and take opportunities away from his returning starter.
And there will be plenty of competition for reps next fall. The biggest challenger to Mason’s supremacy in the backfield is JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound back enrolled early to be able to participate in spring practice and start his push for playing time early. Artis-Payne is a physical runner who can eat up yards between the tackles and act as an effective grinder in Malzahn’s downhill running scheme.
Then there’s also Corey Grant. The former Alabama Crimson Tide transfer has home run playmaking ability with elite straight line speed that could make him a wild card in Malzahn’s offense. The coach will definitely try to find ways to get Grant open space so that he can blow past defenders with his wheels after the last coaching staff only gave him nine carries for 29 yards in 2012.
The backfield will only get more crowded this summer when incoming freshman Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber add their talents to the mix and make fall camp all the more interesting. Malzahn will have plenty of options and skill sets to work with, so each running back will be bringing their very best to every practice to earn a spot in the offensive gameplan.
While that added competition may not bode well for Mason retaining his feature-back status, it will make the running game even stronger for Auburn next season. Which talented runner will come out on top will have to be decided on the practice fields.