Thursday, March 6, 2014
Spring position battles: Running back
By Greg Ostendorf
Editor’s note: This is part four in a week-long series looking at five positions battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.
AUBURN, Ala. -- As Auburn searches this spring to find a replacement for running back Tre Mason, who better to ask about the competition than Mason himself? He led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing, and he knows a thing or two about the other players who will vie to take over his featured role in the backfield.
Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
The two leading candidates are Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Both ran for more than 600 yards, and both finished among the top-20 rushers in the SEC.
“It’s going to be a good battle next year,” Mason said. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey’s a speedster, but Corey’s very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”
There will be others in the mix including incoming freshman Racean Thomas, the nation’s No. 5 running back, but Mason says to temper expectations on Thomas, who won’t arrive on campus until the summer.
“The only thing I can say about that is everybody was good coming out of high school,” Mason said. “You can’t come in with the mindset of you’re the best. You won’t know if you’re the best until you get here. You’ve got stuff to prove. That’s the reason why everyone is here -- they were good in high school. Now it’s time to prove it at the next level.”
Still, Thomas adds yet another playmaker to a backfield full of them. As coach Gus Malzahn said, you can never have enough depth at the running back position.
The contenders Artis-Payne (senior): It was a season full of peaks and valleys for Artis-Payne in 2013. The junior college transfer rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown in his second game, but he became somewhat of an afterthought when conference play started and Mason took over. Still, Artis-Payne showed glimpses here and there, including a nifty 21-yard touchdown run in the SEC championship game. Now it’s his turn. He was a breakout star last spring, and he could be the favorite to carry the load if he shines again this spring.
Grant (senior): When opportunity knocked last year, Grant took full advantage of it. He wasn’t your traditional running back, but he finished third on the team with 647 yards rushing and led the SEC in yards per carry (9.8). He’s a home-run threat on every play, and he forced the coaches to find ways to get the ball in his hands. It would make sense to keep him in the same role next season, but with Mason gone, why not give him a shot as the featured back? He wants to be the guy, and he’s physical enough to do it.
Peyton Barber (freshman): For a player who redshirted, Barber’s name still seemed to come up a good bit last season. The coaches raved about his talent throughout the season, and Mason echoed their sentiments, saying he’s big, fast and quick on his feet. This spring will be his first with the team, and it’s his chance to prove that he belongs in the conversation. He might not be in line to be the starter just yet, but he wants carries just like everybody else.
Johnathan Ford (sophomore): The versatile Ford might be the only player who will be in multiple position battles this spring. The coaches haven’t confirmed whether he will stay at cornerback or move back to his natural position of running back. Last fall, he had six carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in limited action.
Spring forecast When Auburn opens the regular season, there will likely be a running-back-by-committee approach, similar to what the Tigers used early on in 2013. Artis-Payne, Grant, Barber and even Thomas could all be in line to get carries. The spring is still important, though, because it gives Grant an opportunity to prove himself as a feature back. And don’t be surprised if Barber winds up being the breakout star of the group.