- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When running back Cameron Artis-Payne arrived at Auburn in January, there were high expectations. He was ranked No. 35 in the ESPN Junior College 100 and No. 2 at his position. In the spring game, he rushed for 117 yards and took home offensive MVP honors.
However, he’s been relegated to running-back-by-committee duties this season with fellow backs Corey Grant and Tre Mason. In the last game against LSU, he took a backseat to Mason who carried the ball 26 times for 132 yards. Meanwhile, Artis-Payne had just seven carries.
“Tre was hot,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “You could tell he was running good, running strong, so we just kind of stayed with the hot hand. The good thing for us is that we’ve got three guys that we feel good about. Obviously, Tre is the most experienced guy in that group, and he just did an outstanding job and made some very tough yards.”
Don’t expect Artis-Payne to get discouraged. He’s been part of a three-back system before.
Back in 2005, the Pennsylvania native was a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt High School where he and fellow classmate Mike Jones backed up a guy named LeSean McCoy. Jones went on to play at Syracuse while McCoy has established himself as one of the top running backs in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“To coach a guy that some say is the best or one of the top three running backs in the NFL right now, and then coach another kid that went up and played at Syracuse and another kid that’s playing at Auburn, you feel pretty good as a coach,” McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter said. “You had a chance to have all those kids all in the same backfield. We knew back then that it was a special group.”
Now, eight years and five schools later, Artis-Payne finds himself in a similar situation at Auburn. His former coach believes Auburn is a perfect fit for him.
“Everybody is going to more of a two-or-three-back set just to keep their guys fresh,” Weachter said. “With Cameron, he’s a between-the-tackles runner. He’s a physical runner. So it’s good. It’s not wearing him down.
“… It looks like the two kids are real nice complements to each other.”
Through four games, Artis-Payne has rushed for 207 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. In week two, he rushed for a career-high 102 yards against Arkansas State and scored his first touchdown with the Tigers.
Artis-Payne reminds some of former Tigers running back Ben Tate, and it’s not just because they both have No. 44 with the Tigers. Tate, a big, strong back who has surprising quickness like Artis-Payne played under Malzahn during his senior season at Auburn and rushed for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tate was drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans, and now he finds himself in his own backfield timeshare, splitting carries with NFL star Arian Foster.
“Sometimes it's tough,” Tate said. “But at the same time, there are positives to it as well. You're fresher at the end of games, and you're more liable to make a longer run because you're fresher towards the end of the game. That's when teams are getting tired.”
Tate is making the most of his opportunity with the Texans, and Artis-Payne plans to do the same while he’s at Auburn. He knows his number could be called at any time, and no matter the situation, he needs to be ready to deliver.
“You can't just be satisfied with mediocre play by anybody on any certain play,” Artis-Payne said. “We're aiming to be the best and that's what Coach Malzahn wants from us. We're aiming for perfection at this point.”
All three running backs are likely to be called on this weekend when Auburn hosts No. 24 Ole Miss in an SEC West battle.
“We’ve got three running backs that we feel very good about,” Malzahn said. “Week to week, we’ll see what they’re giving us. Week to week could be a little different.”
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough