Mason is now playing for the St. Louis Rams in the National Football League and once again Auburn appears to have a crowded backfield as the Tigers prepare to face the Arkansas Razorbacks in the season opener. With seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant back and being challenged by redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and true freshmen Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway, position coach Tim Horton said while there are still plenty of questions the good news is that he’s got plenty of guys that can do the job.
“It will be interesting to see how Coach (Gus) Malzahn wants to do it and Coach (Rhett) Lashlee and myself,” Horton said. “We’ll see how we’re going to play these cards because I think we’ve got some good players. It’s just a matter of if it’s going to be one guy or two guys or three guys or a combination of all of them because I think they’ve all got something to bring to the table.”
Artis-Payne and Grant are the two most likely to be heavily involved in the running game in 2014 after both were solid a year ago in a supporting role to Mason. Carrying the ball just 66 times and mostly in his speed-back role, Grant still ran for 647 yards and six touchdowns. Getting just 91 carries himself, Artis-Payne finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns as well. With both taking on a leadership role and also improving their games, Horton said he couldn’t be more pleased with his two veterans.
Cameron Artis-Payne looks stronger and quicker as a senior
The same is true of Barber. Redshirting last season in a move that Horton said proved to be beneficial for him because of the steep learning curve when making the move to the SEC, the big back has followed up a strong spring with a solid preseason and gives the Tigers three solid options in the backfield.
“We have seen a really good work ethic,” Horton said. “All three of those guys are workers and it’s a quality that I just don’t believe you can be a great player unless you have. All three are very focused kids and all quiet kids. They’re real focused on trying to get better each day. They’ve got great work ethic. I think you see a better player today than we saw eight months ago, the last time we saw them. I really like my group and feel really blessed to have the opportunity to coach them because they are really good kids. Education is important to them and they’re going to do what’s right. They’re not perfect, but this is as fun of a running back group as I have ever had the opportunity to coach.
“I think the biggest thing with Peyton, he’s got some really good skills, is just becoming a reactor instead of a thinker. His offense in high school was totally different than what we do, it was called totally different. It’s all about his learning curve so it was good that he got redshirted. He’s going to be a really good player. We’re real pleased with him. Sometimes it just becomes taking advantage of that opportunity. When Peyton does get that real opportunity in games I think he’ll do well, he’ll do great.”
Rounding out the group are a pair of freshmen that have impressed their teammates and coaches already even though they are still trying to get up to speed on the offense and the speed of the game in the SEC. A dynamic back with the skills to be a difference-maker in college, Thomas is the quicker of the two but can run with power while Pettway is the bruiser at 235, but with perhaps the best hands of the group. While their skills are evident, Horton said the thing that has stood out to him the most is their attention to detail.
“They have been here a week and the thing that has really been impressive is their knowledge of the game,” Horton said. “The new rules helped us because in the past when you got them in August they had a learning level of zero, they didn’t have anything. Now we’ve got them at about a three or four. They are farther along a week into practice than you typically see because they have been exposed to the offense all summer because we had a chance to be with them. I think they’re going to be good players and we’re real pleased how they have picked up things, but we’re just trying to get them from being thinkers to reactors.”
Kamryn Pettway is a big back that can do a lot of different things
With less than three weeks until they take the field for real, the Tigers still have plenty of work to do said Malzahn. That includes the running back position where two seniors look to have a spot in the rotation already and three more young guys hoping to earn a chance in the coming week.
“All three young guys are going to have a chance to help us,” Malzahn said. “We know what we have with our two older guys and we feel really good about that. In a perfect world two of those three will be in the mix. Like I've said before, you can't have enough depth at running back. My big concern is always third-down pass protection. You know, those young guys, you don't always ask them to do that until they get a very good grip and understanding of that. But a natural running back, you give him the ball and give him a chance to do some things. That'll be our big question this week, to give those three guys a chance and see how it all falls out.”
Roc Thomas runs hard in the first scrimmage