Auburn Tigers: Cameron Artis-Payne

Three keys: Auburn vs. Samford

November, 21, 2014
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For 27 Auburn seniors, Saturday will be the last time they play a game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. It won’t be quite as dramatic as last year’s home finale, but this senior class will be extra motivated to finish strong in front of their fans.

“This is a very good group of seniors that has done a lot of great things for Auburn,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “So I’m really hoping our fans will show up, be loud and send these guys off on the right track.”

Auburn is 26-0-1 all-time against Samford and 91-47-2 against teams from the state of Alabama.

Key player: C Reese Dismukes

Dismukes, recently named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, has started more games (47) than any other player on Auburn’s roster. Saturday will be his 29th and final start at home. No player has meant more to the program over the last four years. He’s snapped the ball to six different quarterbacks. He’s blocked for four separate 1,000-yard rushers. And the last player other than Dismukes to start at center was Tunde Fariyike, who started in October 2012 against Ole Miss. Enjoy him while you can Auburn fans.

Key question: Which running back will gain the most yards?

There are four running backs who might have more than 100 yards on Saturday. Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher, is almost a lock to hit the century mark. He’s done it in seven of Auburn’s 10 games this season. Fellow senior Corey Grant has been quiet for much of the season, but he could see more touches against Samford and he’s liable to break one at any time. Then there’s freshmen Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber. It all depends on how many carries they get, but both are averaging more than 5 yards a carry this season.

Key stat: On runs outside the tackles, Auburn had its fewest carries (8) and yards (32) in a game under Malzahn last week against Georgia per ESPN Stats & Info.

How does a team that has scored 20 or more points in 23 straight games score only seven points last weekend? The stat above will give you the answer. Auburn was averaging nearly 150 yards per game on runs outside the tackles this season, but Georgia took that away. Why does that matter this week? It doesn’t really, not against Samford, but it’s important for Nick Marshall and the offense to find its rhythm before next week’s Iron Bowl. Also, Marshall needs only 78 rushing yards to become Auburn’s all-time leading rusher at quarterback.

Three keys: Auburn at Georgia

November, 14, 2014
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Saturday marks the 118th meeting between Auburn and Georgia in what is known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The two schools have played 117 games, and Auburn holds a one-game edge (55-54-8) thanks to last year’s memorable win and the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare" to add to the rivalry's already substantial lore.

“It’s one of the better rivalries in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s the oldest rivalry in the South, so it’s going to be a big one.”

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsRicardo Louis answered the "Prayer at Jordan Hare" in last year's game against Georgia, adding another epic chapter to the oldest rivalry in the South.
“It’s always meant a lot to me,” added Georgia coach Mark Richt. “It hits at a time of year where usually it’s going to decide somebody’s fate when it comes to playing for the SEC championship.”

This year is no different. If Georgia wins and Missouri loses Saturday, the Bulldogs would clinch the SEC East. Auburn’s road to Atlanta is a bit more treacherous, but there’s still a chance of winning the West if the Tigers can win out.

Key player: QB Nick Marshall

The return of Todd Gurley might have been a blessing in disguise for Auburn, or at least for Marshall. The former Georgia defensive back turned Auburn quarterback has flown somewhat under the radar this week with Gurley grabbing most of the headlines. But Marshall is returning to the place where he started his career and the same place where he reportedly stole from his teammates. He’s typically a cool customer, but how will he handle the hostile atmosphere this Saturday? The Tigers need him at his best if they want to return home with a win.

Key question: Can Auburn’s offense keep up without its top wide receiver?

Though Malzahn has yet to officially rule out D'haquille Williams for Saturday’s game, we can go ahead and assume he’s not going to play. That’s a big blow considering how important he was to this offense, but don’t forget that Auburn beat Georgia last year without him. In that game, fellow wide receiver Ricardo Louis had maybe his best game as a Tiger. He rushed for 66 yards and caught four passes for 131 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. He’ll likely play a key role Saturday, and as always, expect a heavy dose of Cameron Artis-Payne.

Key stat: Auburn has allowed 36.2 points per game in its last four games (2-2) after giving up only 14.4 in its first five (5-0), according to ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to this Auburn defense? The competition has been better, no doubt, but it still feels like the unit has regressed since the beginning of the season. It doesn’t get any easier this week against a Georgia team which is averaging an SEC-best 43 points per game, even with Gurley missing the last four games. Now he’s back to pair with freshman phenom Nick Chubb in the backfield, and quarterback Hutson Mason is playing as well as he has all season. The Tigers better hope they can either force turnovers or get stops in the red zone.
Everybody keeps talking about Les Miles' 46-4 record at home in night games, but how about Gus Malzahn’s record at home? Auburn is a perfect 13-0 at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Malzahn took over prior to last season, winning by an average of average score of 41.5-19.0.

The second-year coach will put that streak to the test Saturday when the Tigers welcome Texas A&M to town in what will be the last SEC home game for Auburn’s seniors.

Key player: Right tackle Avery Young

Young began the season at guard but has since moved back to right tackle, and Saturday he’ll draw the assignment of trying to slow down Texas A&M’s star freshman Myles Garrett. That’s no easy task. Garrett has already set the freshman record for sacks (11), a mark previously held by Jadeveon Clowney, and he still has three games left to play. As a team, Auburn leads the SEC having only allowed six sacks on the season, but Young and the rest of this offensive line will have their hands full with the Aggies’ talented youngster.

Key question: How will Kyle Allen fare in his first SEC start?

It wasn’t that long ago when another true freshman quarterback was making his first SEC start at Auburn, and it didn’t go so well. LSU’s Brandon Harris went 3-of-14 for 58 yards before getting pulled in the third quarter. Allen is obviously hoping for a better performance Saturday, but he didn’t blow by anybody last week against UL-Monroe. The freshmen threw for 106 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The good news is that Auburn’s defense has struggled recently against the pass, but maybe this is what gets them back on track.

Key stat: Since Malzahn took over as head coach, Auburn is 16-0 when it runs for at least 240 yards and 3-3 when it does not per ESPN Stats & Info.

I’m not sure what’s crazier -- that Malzahn is perfect when his team rushes for more than 240 yards or that they’ve done it 16 times in 22 games. Either way, it shouldn’t be a hard number to reach on Saturday, not against a Texas A&M defense that is 12th in the SEC against the run and not when Auburn has Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s leading rusher. Artis-Payne has gone more than 100 yards six times in eight games this season, and he’s liable to get closer to 200 against the Aggies. Maybe then he’ll start getting recognized outside the SEC.

Three keys: Auburn at Ole Miss

October, 31, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When the College Football Playoff rankings debuted Tuesday, Gus Malzahn and his Auburn team were busy practicing. They didn't see nor care that the committee put them at No. 3, the highest of any one-loss team in the country. They had all their attention on Saturday's matchup with No. 4 Ole Miss.

After all, the Tigers have to take care of business in Oxford before looking ahead.

"I'm viewing this Saturday as, this is the biggest game on the schedule,” Malzahn said. “We've got to go there, we've got to play well to win, and that's the only thing on our mind. I'm not looking ahead, this or that, no. We're going to Ole Miss, and we're trying to win a game."

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoAuburn Cameron Artis-Payne can expose Ole Miss up the middle.
Yes, he was the key player last week, and he responded with 167 yards rushing and a touchdown. The senior back will be even more important this week. Ole Miss has arguably the top defense in the SEC, but if there's one area it can be exposed, it's up the middle. LSU rushed for 264 yards against the Rebels last week, and it came primarily between the tackles. That's where Artis-Payne thrives for this Auburn team. It's going to be hard to reach 167 yards again, but the Tigers have won all six games that he's reached the century mark this season.

Key question: Which Bo Wallace will we see, Good Bo or Bad Bo?

It sure looked like Wallace was past his late-game struggles. He led Ole Miss back to a thrilling come-from-behind win against Alabama and through the first seven games, he had thrown six touchdowns to no interceptions in the fourth quarter. That all changed Saturday. Wallace went 6-of-14 in the fourth quarter against LSU and threw the game-clinching interception. Can he bounce back this Saturday against Auburn? The Tigers have forced seven turnovers in their last two games.

Key stat: Ole Miss leads the FBS in points off turnovers (97) and turnover margin (+13).

The last time Auburn went on the road, it turned the ball over on its first two possessions. The Tigers were down 21-0 before they knew what hit them. This offense can't afford to turn the ball over like that again and Nick Marshall in particular has to be careful against an Ole Miss defense that has an FBS-high 17 interceptions. It will be important for the Tigers to establish a running game and grab an early lead because they don't want to throw unless they have to, not against a secondary that includes Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
Before the season, Saturday’s Auburn-South Carolina matchup looked like one of the best we’d see all year. Two top-10 teams, two great offensive minds and a rare cross-division game that hasn’t been played since 2011.

Despite losing its last time out, Auburn held up its end of the bargain. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The same can’t be said for South Carolina, though. The Gamecocks are nowhere to be found in the Top 25 after a 4-3 start. It doesn’t help that Gus Malzahn is a perfect 12-0 at home since becoming the Auburn head coach prior to last season.

Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne

Everybody is talking about freshman running back Roc Thomas after his short but impressive stint at Mississippi State -- the coaches have even said that he’ll have a bigger role in the second half -- but don’t forget about Artis-Payne. He’s fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, and he’s had over 100 yards in four of Auburn’s first six games. He’s also the type who plays better with a chip on his shoulder. He’s heard all the Roc Thomas hype, too. Saturday will be his chance to go out and prove that he is still the team’s No. 1 running back.

Key question: How much will Jermaine Whitehead play?

We know that Whitehead has been reinstated to the team after missing the last four games due to suspension. Malzahn announced the news Tuesday. But what the Auburn coach didn’t specify was how much the senior would play Saturday against South Carolina. All he said was that Whitehead would have to earn back his playing time. There have been reports that the former starting safety will play special teams for the immediate future, but for how long? When will he crack the defensive back rotation? The Tigers could sure use him next week.

Key stat: South Carolina has allowed opponents to complete 50 percent of its passes thrown 10 yards or longer this season (38-of-76), worst in the SEC according to ESPN Stats & Info.

This stat should make Nick Marshall’s eyes light up. The Auburn quarterback has always been criticized about his accuracy throwing downfield. He can throw a great deep ball, but his completion percentage on longer passes doesn’t always reflect that. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will likely try to take a couple of shots Saturday, looking to exploit the Gamecocks’ secondary which has been prone to giving up the big play. That also means that D'haquille Williams and Sammie Coates could both be in for a big night.
Former Auburn running back Tre Mason made his NFL debut Monday night and led the St. Louis Rams with 40 yards on five carries. They were his first meaningful carries since a 37-yard scamper to the end zone against Florida State in the BCS title game more than nine months ago.

The Tigers came up short in that game, his last at Auburn, but the run capped off a terrific season in which Mason rushed for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns. The junior left early for the NFL draft, and was taken in the third round by the Rams.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsFormer Auburn standout Tre Mason is in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams after being drafted in the third round.
As he continues to build on Monday’s success, Mason took some time out of his schedule to talk about his rookie season, his relationship with Rams teammate Greg Robinson, and whether this season’s Auburn team can still win it all.

How is your first season with the Rams going?

Mason: The season is going great. Of course, I can’t wait to get out there and start playing football again. It’s been what, about 10 months since the national championship game? I was excited to be out there (Monday). I’m fired up.

You finally got your first NFL carry. Describe that feeling.

Mason: In my head, all I was thinking was pick up where I left off at ... keep it running.

What is it like having (former Auburn offensive tackle) Robinson on the team with you?

Mason: Having Greg on the team with me is fun. It’s like coming in here with a brother. I don’t even think blood could make Greg and I any closer. It made the transition a lot easier, just being here (together). We know how to push each other, how to keep each other’s mind right, and how to attack the game together.

What are your thoughts on Auburn’s season so far?

Mason: Those are my brothers. I still think they’re the best team in the country. Everyone faces adversity, and they’ve met theirs a little early -- like we did last year. Everyone has that adversity, but I expect them to be fighting for the national championship. I don’t expect them to lose another one.

How do you feel the running backs have performed in your place?

Mason: That’s a great group. I already knew that before I left. While I was there, I knew CAP (Cameron Artis-Payne), Corey (Grant), any of those guys can take over that role. Even Peyton Barber. There’s a bunch of talent in that backfield. It’s a scary sight.

Have you been able to get back to a game, or are you planning to?

Mason: I have not been able to. Hopefully I have time to get to a game. Hopefully they make it all the way, so I can definitely be at that game. But I’m in touch with those guys every day, like I’m still there.

What are your goals for both you and for the Rams this season?

Mason: Right now my goal is flat out, just win. Three-letter word, win. That’s all I want to do. I don’t care how it’s done, how we do it, if I play a big part, but I know I’m going to do everything I can to put together a win. That’s my only goal right now.

Auburn midseason overview

October, 16, 2014
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It's the midway point for Auburn and for most of the teams in the SEC. Earlier in the week, we looked at the conference as a whole in our SEC midseason overview. Now it's time to break down the Tigers after the first six games.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIAuburn center Reese Dismukes makes Gus Malzahn's offense run smoothly.
After missing the first half of the season opener, Nick Marshall has been great. Cameron Artis-Payne is third in the SEC with 664 rushing yards. Even D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer, can make a case. But the player who makes it all go is Dismukes. He's been the constant for this Auburn offense since Gus Malzahn arrived. When the Tigers are running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, Dismukes is the one getting everybody set and making the calls. That's no easy task. His experience is simply irreplaceable.

Defensive MVP: DB Johnathan Ford

Nobody saw this coming before the season, but Ford, a running back in high school, has played as well as anybody on Auburn's defense. He leads the team with 41 tackles, and he also has two interceptions, one fumble forced and half a sack. The sophomore is doing it all for the Tigers, and it's his first year playing safety. It's safe to say he's found a home. In Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, Ford finished with nine tackles, one interception, one fumble forced and one quarterback hurry. How's that for a stat line against the No. 1 team in the country?

Newcomer of the year (not named D'haquille): DE Davonte Lambert

Since Duke Williams is our SEC newcomer of the year at the midway point, we're going to go a different route and take Lambert. The junior college transfer didn't have the luxury of going through spring practice, but it's easy to see why Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner was raving about Lambert once he got on campus. He cracked the starting lineup after the third game, and he leads the team with five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He's not Dee Ford. He's not Carl Lawson. But he's filled in admirably, exceeding expectations.

Biggest surprise: Ellis Johnson's defense

In August, everybody was asking if Auburn score enough points again this season to make up for an average defense. Well, the Tigers took exception to that. The defense has played much better in Johnson's second year as coordinator. Before Saturday, they had allowed 21 or fewer points in each of the first five games, the longest such streak since 2007-08. Even in the loss, Auburn forced four turnovers and allowed only 10 points in the second half. If not for shortcomings on offense, it might have been a different game.

Room for improvement: Consistency on offense

Speaking of those shortcomings, it's been a struggle at times for Auburn's offense. They never really got going at Kansas State; they started slow against Louisiana Tech; and they turned the ball over twice on the first two plays in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State. The talent is there. The coaching is there. They've even shown glimpses of last year, but they have been way too inconsistent. To reach that level, that standard that Auburn set for itself last year, this offense needs to improve on the little things.

Biggest game of the second half: Nov. 1 at Ole Miss

Take your pick. The Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa obviously stands out. A trip to Georgia in November will be difficult regardless of whether Todd Gurley plays. And Auburn can't overlook home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M. But the most meaningful game left on the schedule is in Oxford against Ole Miss. The Rebels are undefeated, having already beaten Alabama and Texas A&M, and a win against Auburn could make it mighty difficult to keep them out of the playoff. On the flip side, every game is a must-win now for the Tigers, and that one is no different.
Winning at Jordan-Hare Stadium has proven difficult over the years. For non-conference teams, it's proven to be almost impossible. Auburn has won 23 straight non-conference home games dating to 2007, which means San Jose State will have its hands full in the first meeting between the two teams.

Key player: WR Sammie Coates

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsLook for a rebound week from Auburn's Sammie Coates against San Jose State.
Remember him? The guy who led Auburn with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns just a season ago? Well, Coates caught just one pass Saturday for 13 yards. He was quickly forgotten with the debut of D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas. Coates might not be as big or as gifted as Williams, but look for him to bounce back this week, especially considering Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers.

Key question: How many true freshmen will play?

San Jose State isn't as much of a pushover as, say, Florida Atlantic or Western Carolina from last year, but the Tigers should still win this one with relative ease. Assuming that's the case, it's always fun to see which true freshmen get to play. In Week 1, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts were the only three to land on the participation report, and all three should see the field again Saturday. Others to watch include Racean ‘Roc' Thomas, Braden Smith, Stanton Truitt and Jakell Mitchell.

Key stat: Auburn averaged 8.5 yards per play against Arkansas last week, the most against a Power Five conference opponent since 2004. – ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to Auburn's offense taking a step backwards this season? The early departures at running back and left tackle, coupled with the loss of an All-SEC freshman at guard, were supposed to make the Tigers human again. That wasn't the case Saturday. And to think, they did it with the backup quarterback playing the entire first half. The arrival of Williams helped, along with the emergence of Cameron Artis-Payne, but as long as Gus Malzahn is running the show, Auburn will have one of the more prolific offenses in the SEC.
AUBURN, Ala. -- "There goes [Chris] Davis. Davis is going to run it all the way back. Auburn’s going to win the football game. Auburn’s going to win the football game. He ran the missed field goal back. He ran it back 109 yards. They’re not going to keep them off the field tonight. Holy cow. Oh my God. Auburn wins."

That was the last play Auburn radio announcer Rod Bramblett called inside Jordan-Hare Stadium -- the infamous "Kick-Six" -- the play that beat rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl and paved the way to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' last-second, 100-yard touchdown return won't soon be forgotten on the Plains.
As Bramblett predicted, the fans poured onto the field after the game, creating a scene that won’t soon be forgotten on the Plains.

"The imagery of that field covered in orange and blue just captured the moment, captured the sheer jubilation of something special they had witnessed," Bramblett said later.

A new season is upon us, and Auburn is focusing more on the 13 seconds left when Florida State scored the go-ahead touchdown in the BCS title game rather than the one second that was still on the clock when Davis returned the field goal to beat Alabama.

However, Saturday will be nine months to the day since that play happened, and it will surely be on the fans’ minds as they return to Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch the Tigers open the season against Arkansas. It will be the first game back home since the Iron Bowl.

"We’ll be excited," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. "I don’t know what it’s going to be like. We’ve got the greatest fans, so I know it’s definitely going to be a great atmosphere. I’m just looking forward to it."

"I think in terms of season openers, home openers, the electricity and the atmosphere will probably be at an all-time high," Bramblett added. "I just think it’s going to be an incredible scene."

There is a strong possibility that the replay of the kick-six, accompanied by Bramblett’s call, will be shown on the scoreboard before the game, and though the players will likely be in the locker room, Artis-Payne believes he will know when it comes on.

"I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to hear them," he said.

As of Wednesday, Bramblett hadn’t come up with his signature lead-in that he does before every game, but he was confident this first one of the season would include last year’s Iron Bowl in some form or fashion.

Auburn meanwhile is hoping for a similar result in the win-loss column, but it could do without all the drama this time around.

SEC's lunch links

June, 12, 2014
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The World Cup begins today. Will you be watching? If so, make sure you take in today’s lunch links before Brazil and Croatia kick off. If not, still check out the lunch links and see what’s going on around the SEC.
  • Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro is the perfect O’Bannon witness to show the NCAA’s economic model is broken.
  • Between Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber, there isn’t a clear pecking order at running back, but that’s how Auburn likes it.
  • Recruits react to Joker Phillips’ resignation at Florida on Wednesday.
  • Georgia’s secondary: How it looks after the Tray Matthews’ dismissal and a possible position change since the end of spring practice.
  • Not so fast: Jalen Mills’ attorney says the LSU cornerback wasn’t the one who struck the victim in the incident last month that led to Tuesday’s arrest.
  • Missouri wide receiver signee Darnell Green, the younger brother of former star Dorial Green-Beckham, plans to delay his enrollment until January.
  • South Carolina’s new-look defensive line remains a work in progress.
We've already ranked all 14 running back groups in the SEC. Now it's time to check out who we think will be the 10 best running backs in the league this fall when it comes to production and team value:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley has been slowed by injuries but still projects to be the best back in the SEC in 2014.
1. Todd Gurley, Jr., Georgia: Nagging injuries have slowed Gurley, but he still has more than 2,300 career rushing yards and almost 30 touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy candidate is built to pound but can break big runs in an instant. He has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has 13 100-yard rushing games in his career and is also extremely active in the passing game, where he has 558 career receiving yards. Gurley wants to run tougher and harder this year, which is just plain scary.

2. T.J. Yeldon, Jr., Alabama: After registering 1,235 yards last year, Yeldon became the first back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first two seasons. Yeldon has had his fumbling issues, but when he’s in control he’s extremely tough to stop with the strength he has to grind out yards. Add on his speed and elusiveness, and Yeldon has no problem making defenders look silly.

3. Derrick Henry, So., Alabama: OK, so all the excitement around him stems from an incredible high school career and a superb bowl performance. But we saw so much power and finesse in all 161 yards of total offense he had in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Henry is the total package and an every-down back who can push his way through the line of scrimmage like a tank but is also deadly in space. Don’t be shocked if he eats up a big chunk of Yeldon’s carries.

4. Mike Davis, Jr., South Carolina: You could easily put him higher because of pure, brute strength and his speed and elusiveness. After rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, Davis’ stock in this league has skyrocketed. Last season, Davis rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.

5. Alex Collins, So., Arkansas: The prize of Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class, Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004. Collins fell off after a great start but still finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson could be primed for a breakout 2014 season in a featured-back role.
6. Tra Carson, RJr., Texas A&M: Carson wasn’t asked to do a lot last year (329 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 carries), but that will change with Ben Malena gone. Carson will no longer be viewed as just a short-yardage guy. He has a ton of power but also can explode out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game. He’s also deceptively elusive in open space.

7. Jonathan Williams, Jr., Arkansas: Like Collins, he started the 2013 season off fast with three straight 100-plus-yard games. He finished the year with 900 yards and four touchdowns but could be even better in 2014. Having Collins play better shouldn’t hurt, either, because of how well they complement each other. While Collins is capable of big plays with his speed, Williams is more of a power runner.

8. Leonard Fournette, Fr., LSU: No, he hasn’t touched the ball at the college level or gone through practice with the Tigers. But he was the nation's top-rated prospect in the 2014 class and ran for almost 1,800 yards as a senior in high school. He rushed for more than 7,600 yards in his high school career and was ready to run at the college level before his senior prom. He’s built like a truck and will run like one with the Tigers.

9. Cameron Artis-Payne, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers won’t have a problem spreading the wealth around at running back this fall, but Artis-Payne is built to carry the load. Corey Grant is used as more of a speed back in this offense, while Artis-Payne is more of an every-down back for the Tigers, and his downhill style should thrive with more touches.

10. Kelvin Taylor, So., Florida: Taylor has NFL blood coursing through his veins, and people in Gainesville hope to see more of his father, Fred Taylor, out of him this fall. He progressed as last season went on and finished with 508 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor is faster and more agile now and has the chance to be a true game-changer in a more wide-open offensive scheme.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
Who are the players that this year’s Auburn team cannot live without? This week, I’ll take a look at the five most indispensable players on each side of the ball.

Let’s begin with the offense:

WR Sammie Coates: The talk this spring has been focused on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams and how deep the Auburn receiving corps is, but where would the Tigers have been last year without Coates? The sophomore, who had just six catches the year before, finished with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the lone player who kept defenses from putting everybody in the box to stop the run, and he’s fast enough that it’s almost impossible for one player to cover him. This year, he’s back and stronger than ever. The one-handed grab in the spring game might have been a glimpse into what’s to come. If Nick Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer, he has to have Coates on the field.


[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn has plenty of running backs, but Corey Grant's speed would be hard to replace.
RB Corey Grant: Auburn’s offense is predicated on speed. It’s been the selling point of the program this offseason, and for Gus Malzahn to do what he wants to do, he needs players who are fast. Who better fits the bill than Grant? He reportedly ran a sub-4.2 40 last month, and if you don’t believe it, just go back and watch his touchdown run from the spring game. He brings a different element to the offense. He might lose the starting running back job to Cameron Artis-Payne, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important. Auburn will have two other backs on campus this fall similar to Artis-Payne, but no player can match Grant’s speed out of the backfield. He’s easily the biggest home run threat on the team.

C Reese Dismukes: There’s an argument to be made that the center is the most important player on an offense. They don’t get as much attention as the quarterback or the skill players, but every single play begins with them. In Auburn’s case, it couldn’t be truer. Dismukes, who has been the starter since 2011, has been though the bad times and the good, and he was instrumental in last year’s turnaround. The senior was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list on Monday, and it would be a shock if he’s not a finalist for the award again this year. If you’re looking for somebody to help Auburn avoid getting complacent, look no further. Dismukes will make sure this team stays hungry in its quest to repeat as SEC champions.

QB Nick Marshall: OK, now the easy one. Marshall was the key last year, and as he improved, so too did the offense. The junior college transfer finished with 1,976 yards passing, 1,068 yards rushing and 26 combined touchdowns. He still has work to do in the passing game, but by all accounts, he’s improved this spring and could be in for a huge senior season. The only argument to be made against Marshall is that quarterback is actually a deep position for Auburn. Backup Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than able last season, and ESPN 300 signal caller Sean White is set to arrive later this month. But let’s not kid ourselves. If Auburn wants to reach the first ever College Football Playoff, it needs Marshall to stay healthy.

RT Avery Young: Typically, it’s the left tackle that teams covet, and while both Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller will be vital to Auburn’s success next season, the versatility of Young on the right side makes him an even more important commodity. Young took over at right tackle midway through the year last year and never relinquished the job. He exceeded expectations as a redshirt freshman, and now he’s entrenched there as the starter. However, the AU coaches gave him some reps at right guard this spring, and his ability to play multiple positions gives Auburn a deeper, more effective offensive line.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told ESPN.com.

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”

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