StatTiger: Tigers Should be Ready to Run

Stuart Carter analyzes the potential for the Auburn running attack for the 2014 football season.

With Tre Mason electing to forgo his senior season, Gus Malzahn will be searching for his next starting running back to take the reigns of his potent run offense. Auburn has an extensive history for success when it comes to its running game with a legacy carried on by Malzahn as he heads into his second season as head coach of the Tigers.

From 1993-2013 Auburn leads the Southeastern Conference with 15 individual 1,000-yard rushing performances. Twice during Malzahn's time at Auburn the Tigers have fielded two 1,000-yard rushers during the same season. In Malzahn's four seasons at Auburn as head coach or offensive coordinator, those teams have captured two conference titles and made two trips to the BCS National Championship Game.

The running attack has averaged 253.9 yards per game over the course of Malzahn's four seasons at AU. This remarkable rushing standard is the primary reason why Auburn has the best rushing average in the conference during the period of 2000-2013.

During this same time frame Auburn has produced the most individual 100-yard rushing performances in the Southeastern Conference with 103. Of those performances during 14 seasons, 42 have come during the Malzahn Era. While the remainder of the SEC is averaging 4.2 individual rushing performances of 100 yards or more per season, Auburn under Malzahn is averaging 10.5.

Auburn will enter the 2014 season with a school record of five consecutive seasons in which its starting running back gained at least 1,000 yards rushing. The streak is part of Malzahn's streak of fielding a 1,000-yard rusher for eight consecutive seasons at the running back position. The coach has had a starting running back who averaged 1,373 rushing yards per season from 2006-2013.

Auburn's leading rusher at the running back position has averaged 1,018 yards per season from 1993-2013, including an average of 1,378 yards under Malzahn. From 2000-2013 Auburn is one of only nine FBS programs to have at least ten 1,000-yard rushers at the running back position.

Auburn's primary running back in 2014 will likely emerge from the trio of Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber or Racean Thomas. Artis-Payne was Auburn's fourth leading rusher last season with 610 yards on just 91 attempts. He was on pace for a 900-yard season after eight games into the season, but was limited to just 19 rushes during the final six games. Artis-Payne averaged 6.7 yards per rush, including 5.6 yards in conference play and 6.5 yards per rush against ranked opponents. Prior to his arrival at Auburn, he had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in junior college.

Barber was redshirted last season with Auburn possessing adequate depth at the running back position. Barber notes that looks forward to his opportunity to compete for the upcoming season. "I feel like I'm an every-down back just like Tre (Mason)," he said. "I can run, catch, block and pretty much do it all. Anything you need me to do I can do it."

Barber has potential to be an effective inside runner with his combination of good power and balance. Malzahn envisions Barber as a good fit for the read-option element of the running game.

Incoming freshman Thomas is the most highly touted running back Auburn has signed since Carnell Williams. Thomas was the No. 3 rated high school running back according to Scout.com, drawing physical comparisons to Williams. Both backs were physical runners coming out of high school with outstanding vision and lateral movement.

Thomas completed his high school career with 6,169 yards rushing and 82 touchdowns, including 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns during his senior year. His game-changing ability could pave the way for Thomas to make an immediate impact his freshman year.

As talented as Thomas might be, it should be noted that only 7.4 percent of the 1,000-yard rushers in major college football from 1990-2013 were freshmen, including only nine from the SEC. During the same time period 71.2 percent of the 1,000-yard rushers were upperclassmen.

Of the 260 players to rush for at least 1,000 yards during the past five seasons, 16 were freshmen, but five did come from the SEC. The odds play in favor of Artis-Payne being Auburn's leading rusher, especially early on during the season. Thomas will likely see his role in the 2014 offense expand as the season progresses.

Cameron Artis-Payne will be a senior this season.

Last season the Auburn running game produced the most plays of 10 yards or more (147) and the most plays of 20 yards or more (42). Though Malzahn would prefer to have an established primary running back, it won't restrict his strategy of spreading the wealth among multiple players. Auburn was the only FBS school to have four different players with more than 600 yards rushing last season. Even though players like Corey Grant or Johnathan Ford aren't likely to be the primary rusher, they still have the opportunity to produce explosive plays within the game plan.

Since he joined the collegiate coaching ranks Malzahn's primary rusher has accounted for 41.7 percent of his team's carries and 42.6 percent of the total rushing yardage. The first few games of the 2014 season will likely be a live audition to become Auburn's primary back, much like the 2013 campaign.

The foundation for another strong running attack is in place. Auburn has five offensive linemen with starting experience, totaling 113 starts among the group. Grant and Nick Marshall will make it difficult for opponents to maintain the edge while defending between the tackles.

The competition to become the primary running back during 2013 lasted three games into the season when Tre Mason had 39 carries and Artis-Payne had 35 carries. During the final 11 games of the season Mason had 278 carries to Artis-Payne's 56 attempts.

This season's competition could become more complicated with three backs vying for the starting role. The stiff competition increases the opportunity of Auburn fielding another quality running back. Mason made the most of his opportunity last season, rushing for a school record 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns.


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