"We have to replace Tre Mason, in my opinion the best running back in the nation last year,” Malzahn said. “We have two seniors we feel very good about, Peyton Barber’s a younger guy and Roc Thomas is coming in so we feel like we have a lot of good options and we’ll see what happens.”
The stage could be set for a running back by committee situation to start the season, with the hopes the best of the pack surfaces within the first few games. This was Auburn’s strategy during the 2013 season with Mason finally establishing himself as the frontrunner against LSU.
If things fall into place this year the Tigers could have the next great running back combination in the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas featured the dynamic combination of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones while Alabama recently fielded the powerful duo of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Auburn has made its own history with James Brooks and Joe Cribbs along with the lethal combination of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.
Tennessee joins Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama as the only programs within the conference to field two 1,000-yard rushers during the same season with Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston doing it for the Vols.
Horton noted that spring training gave him confidence the Tigers have three running backs ready to get the job done. “Sometimes when you say you have got three guys it really means you don’t have any, but for us I think we have got three guys we can go to war with and win in the SEC,” the coach said.
Should Auburn field a productive combination at the position, it would likely be seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant in those roles. The seniors backs bring the right combination of power, talent and speed that could have Auburn fans referring to the duo as “Thunder and Lightning” before year’s end. Last season Artis-Payne and Grant combined for 1,257 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 8.0 yards per carry.
More than one-third of their rush attempts resulted in a first down, including 43 of 10 yards or more and 13 of 20 yards or more. Both backs have set their goals high having to replace Mason, who established several”school records last season. "Me and Cam can replace him, and it will be like he never left,” Grant said. “Tre’s a great player, but me and Cam and Peyton can step up.”
Corey Grant is expected to be one of the fastest players in college football this season.
Grant and Artis-Payne took different paths to Auburn, but both came for the same reason--to have the opportunity to showcase their skills in the strongest conference in college football. Both have a chance to do that starting on August 30th vs. the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Though Grant and Artis-Payne stood in the shadow of Mason at times, they both made key plays during the 2013 season, resulting in a Southeastern Conference championship. As they enter into their final collegiate season both want to make their own history in becoming part of Auburn’s legacy of fielding excellent running backs. Artis-Payne doesn't shy away from saying he believes he can fill the shoes of Mason, an All-American and the 2013 SEC Offensive Player of the Year. “I definitely feel like with those carries (Mason’s 317 rushing attempts last season) that I could do something similar,” the senior said. “I could put up those types of numbers."”
The stage is set for Artis-Payne and Grant. They finished a productive spring by combining for 225 yards on 19 carries in the A-Day Game. Often the best opportunities come from the chances we fashion rather than the opportunities we find. The 2014 offense has the potential to be one of the most productive in Auburn history. Artis-Payne and Grant must seize their opportunities for greatness or fall prey to others on a depth chart that looks very promising when it comes to running backs.