Caldwell Column: Mason A Key For AU Offense

Auburn's running game will take center stage with Gus Malzahn back at the helm on the Plains in 2013.

While there are many positions that have huge question marks for the Auburn Tigers entering the 2013 football season, one of those shouldn't be at running back where junior Tre Mason returns following a 1,000-yard season last fall.

Throw in junior Corey Grant, junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne plus incoming freshmen Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber and you have a solid group for coach Tim Horton to work with.

There's no question that Mason is a guy who will be counted on to carry a heavy load for the Tigers after proving last season he is durable and capable of being an every-down back. Playing for a team that won just three games, Mason carried the ball 171 times for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns and accomplished something that had been done just one other time in school history.

When speedy James Brooks ran for 1,314 yards on 261 carries in 1980, it marked the first time that an Auburn runner had eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark while playing for a losing team. That team finished 5-6 in Doug Barfield's final season as head coach of the Tigers before Pat Dye took over the following year.

Mason's accomplishment was even more impressive considering the magnitude of Auburn's losses and carrying the football less than 200 times. In the second half of the season the Tigers weren't involved in close games that led to running the football the majority of the time. In only three games (Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, Alabama) did Mason have 20 carries or more in a game in 2012.

The most surprising statistics is that in seven games last season Mason carried the ball 14 or fewer times. When you consider that it's hard to imagine he was still able run run for more than 1,000 yards in the Southeastern Conference against some of the top defensive talent in the country.

Mason will now have an opportunity to be part of a Gus Malzahn offense that has been centered around the run dating back to his starting days as a college football coach at Arkansas. That first season Malzahn used the combination of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to average 228.5 yards rushing per game. That was good enough for fourth nationally. Two years later at Tulsa, Malzahn again had one of the Top 10 rushing attacks in college football before moving to Auburn as offensive coordinator.

The season before Malzahn arrived on the Plains, Auburn averaged 137.5 rushing yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground. Taking over in 2009, Malzahn's offense averaged 212 yards per game rushing and scored 24 touchdowns featuring 1,000-yard rusher Ben Tate. In 2010 the results speak for themselves as Auburn finished as one of the nation's top offensive teams.

Even with the offense slowing in 2011 and the production at quarterback non-existent after early in the season, Auburn still managed a solid running game with 182 yards per contest and 20 touchdowns for the year.

Can Auburn expect that kind of improvement right away in 2013? It's not out of the realm of possibility.

Returning a physically talented offensive line and getting a coaching staff that believes in running the football and being tough on the lines of scrimmage, the Tigers should get a chance to run the football early and often as the quarterback situation sorts itself out. That should be good news for Mason who should get a chance to show what kind of difference-maker he can be in an offense that fits his skills.

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