Auburn Tigers: Corey Grant

Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
12:00
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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.
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.
The 2014 NFL draft is over, and the SEC made quit the impression with a nation-leading 49 draft picks.

But that was the past. It's time to look into the future, and NFL draft guru Todd McShay has us covered, even though he's due for a long vacation.

On Wednesday, McShay debuted his first 2015 mock draft Insider. These are never perfect, but that doesn't make them any less fun to look at. And the SEC is yet again well represented in McShay's first mock draft with 10 players, including four in the top 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTodd McShay doesn't expect Amari Cooper to be available for very long in the 2015 NFL draft.
USC junior defensive end Leonard Williams is projected to go first overall to the Oakland Raiders, while the highest pick from the SEC is Alabama junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is projected to go No. 2 to the Cleveland Browns. I guess Johnny Manziel won't make that much of an impact with the Browns this year.

McShay then has Texas A&M junior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi going third to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida junior defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. going fourth to the Washington Redskins and Alabama junior safety Landon Collins going 10th to the Browns.

The biggest surprise to me was the fact that McShay had Missouri defensive end/linebacker Shane Ray going 31st overall to the New Orleans Saints. Ray is certainly someone flirting with breakout status this season after collecting 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2013, but what makes him such an intriguing prospect is that he has a ton of speed and athleticism on top of that 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame. He was second on the team last season with 11 quarterback hurries.

Ray should have a lot of fun coming off the edge with fellow end Markus Golden, who could have easily left for the NFL this season. Golden is more of a name right now after registering 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, but Ray has a chance to be a really special player.

Who are some other guys who could help their draft cause this fall? Well, ESPN Insider KC Joyner listed his five players poised for big seasons in 2014 Insider, and Auburn's Corey Grant and D'haquille Williams made the cut.

Grant rushed for more than 600 yards last year and had six touchdowns as one of Tre Mason's backups. Now the starting running back spot is up for grabs, and Grant has every chance to take it while competing with Cameron Artis-Payne, who also rushed for 600-plus yards and six touchdowns last season.

As for Williams, the junior college transfer has yet to play a down at this level, but his new coaches see something very special in him. Co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig went as far to say this spring that Williams could have a Jameis Winston-like impact on Auburn's offense at receiver. Will he direct the Tigers to another national championship run? Not sure, but he could be a real spark for Auburn's passing game this fall.
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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne is ready to carry the load in Auburn's backfield this fall.
“Who me?” Artis-Payne joked when asked about winning offensive MVP honors for the second year in a row. “I definitely got a shot at that ... I don’t think I’m going to need as many as touches as I did last year.”

Artis-Payne had 20 touches in last year’s spring game and finished with 164 yards of offense and a touchdown. It was a breakout performance that capped what was an impressive spring for the junior college transfer, and it ultimately landed him a contributing role in Auburn’s backfield this past season.

Although he gave way to Tre Mason once SEC play began, Artis-Payne still finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut on the Plains.

With Mason leaving early for the NFL, Artis-Payne is now battling fellow senior Corey Grant for the featured back role this spring, and although they are looked at as very different runners -- Artis-Payne known for his power and Grant for his speed -- there’s more than what meets the eye.

“It’s funny that we get that label,” Artis-Payne said. “A lot of people say I'm a power back, but I can run in the low 4.4 range. And Corey is one of the strongest guys on the team.”

Both players have shown they’re more than capable of carrying the load, but regardless of who wins the job, they’re both going to play in 2014 and play to their strengths.

“We complement each other very well,” Artis-Payne added. “It's something that just happens naturally. Out there on the field, it's just a change of pace with a guy like Corey. He's literally a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. And then you've got a guy like me that grinds away the defense. It's just a good thing to have.”

Earlier this spring, Artis-Payne admitted that he was eager for a resolution and wanted to know who the starter would be, but there has been no indication to this point as to who will win the job or when it will be announced. That’s up to head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, so from that aspect of course [I want to know],” Artis Payne said. “But at the end of the day, that's out of my hands. We just need to go out there and keep working, and when he feels like it's time for a decision to be made, he'll make it.”

The uncertainty certainly hasn’t affected Artis-Payne this spring. He has practiced with that same confidence he had last spring and the same confidence that carried over into the season. He’s not concerned with what’s going on around him. He’s just putting in the work.

“Love it,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Artis-Payne’s confidence this spring. “Cam's a pro. Cam was a pro last year. He practices like a pro. What that means is he comes to meetings every day. He's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's always attentive. He's always trying to get better.

“I've got a lot of confidence that Cam will do everything we ask him to do -- carrying the ball, protections -- and really do a good job.”

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.
AUBURN, Ala. -- If there are any questions as to whether Corey Grant can be an every-down running back this fall, just go back to last year’s Texas A&M game.

On Auburn’s opening drive, Grant took a toss sweep around the left side and picked up 32 yards. At the end of the run, the Tigers’ “speed” back could’ve just run out of bounds, but instead he lowered his shoulder and laid out a Texas A&M defender before stepping out. It was his way of showing the Aggies that they better bring a little extra when they try to take him down.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant is in the running to inherit at least some of Tre Mason's carries, if not the lion's share.
“It’s kind of like a chip on my shoulder,” Grant said. “Coming into the game, guys know that I’m the speed-sweep guy. When they come up to tackle me, in their minds it’s ‘he’s not a big guy or he’s not the power back so I don’t have to come at him like that.’ But I always try to be the hammer instead of the nail. In that situation, that’s what was on my mind.”

This spring, Grant is competing with Cameron Artis-Payne for the No. 1 running back job. Despite teammates calling him one of the strongest members of the team, there are still questions about his strength and durability. Can he run in between the tackles? Can he carry the load? Can he be more than a just speed guy?

It’s the same questions that were asked when he signed with Alabama out of high school and the same questions that were asked when he transferred to Auburn after just one season.

“Corey is a gym rat,” former high school coach Brian Blackmon said. “He loves the weight room, and I think that’s something he has a real passion for. He’s probably as physically strong as he can be. He does over and above what they ask him to do.

“I think he’s plenty strong enough to be an every-down back. I think he’s plenty strong enough to take that beating as an every-down back in the SEC.”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn shared similar thoughts after the team’s first scrimmage this spring, calling Grant “very physical” and “one of the stronger guys in the weight room.” It’s why the staff is giving the senior running back every opportunity to win the job.

And who better to comment on the position battle than Tre Mason, the man they’re vying to replace?

“It’s going to be a good battle,” Mason said after his pro day workout. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey is a speedster, but Corey is very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”

Mason knows a thing or two about toughness. In the same game that Grant lowered a shoulder and laid out a defender, it was Mason who carried the ball 27 times for 178 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a run in which he refused to go down.

As a junior, Mason led the SEC in rushing and earned an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but he, too, had questions asked about his durability when he arrived on the Plains.

“I learned a lot from Tre,” Grant said. “The biggest thing that I really liked about him and what comes to mind every time somebody asks me about him is never letting the first guy tackle you. That was always my thing. You can go back and watch his film, and you can always see where Tre, he would never let that first guy take him down. He would break tackles everywhere.”

Now it's Grant's turn.

Regardless of whether he wins the job, he will have a role in the offense next fall. He’s still running the speed sweep this spring, and he’s likely to be the first player to come in and spell Artis-Payne next season if he’s not the starter.

But like every competitor, Grant wants to be the guy. He has a hard time admitting it, but he wants to carry the load and be an every-down back.

“Corey is a competitor so he’s going to give everything he’s got to win the job,” Blackmon said. "But he’s also one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around, an incredible team player.

“I know there’s a tremendous desire inside of him to be the every-down back. I also know that he’s going to do whatever Coach Malzahn and Coach [Rhett] Lashlee ask him to do to help Auburn University be successful. He’s just got that in him.”

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.
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.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron 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.

Room to improve: Running back

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
10:00
AM ET
Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn led the nation in rushing this past season. Through 14 games, the Tigers averaged an astonishing 328 yards per game. Three different running backs finished among the SEC’s top-20 rushers, and Auburn had four of the top 20 if you count quarterback Nick Marshall -- who gained over 1,000 yards on the ground.

So how could the running back position possibly have any room left to improve?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne (pictured) and Corey Grant will pick up much of the production lost when Tre Mason declared for the NFL draft.
It starts with the departure of Tre Mason. The junior star led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, but he opted to leave early for the NFL draft. As good as Marshall and the offensive line were, it was Mason who carried this Auburn offense. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than just one player to fill that void.

The other major loss in the backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean Jay Prosch was any less important. The team’s H-back played a critical role as the lead blocker for the Tigers, and it will be difficult to find somebody who was as good as his job as he was.

With Marshall back and four of the five starters on the offensive line back, Auburn is still going to be among the SEC’s top rushing teams, but if it wants to duplicate last season's success, it has to find a way to replace both Mason and Prosch in the backfield.

Battling for No. 1: Marshall and Mason were both among the SEC’s rushing leaders last year, but people forget that junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama transfer Corey Grant each had over 600 yards rushing in their own right. That’s more than some teams got from their leading rusher. Grant, who led the SEC with 9.8 yards per carry, provided a nice change of pace with his speed, but he also showed a physical side at times and could be in the mix as the team’s feature back this season. Artis-Payne is bigger and more physical, but he still has quick feet and a good burst that separates him from other players. The most likely scenario is that Artis-Payne and Grant will split carries, forming a dangerous duo on the Plains.

Strength in numbers: On signing day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said one can never have enough depth at the running back position. It couldn’t be more true at Auburn, where Malzahn has been known to play two and sometimes even three running backs in a game at the same time. We’ll get to the incoming freshmen, but the Tigers have some capable backs already on campus who are just waiting their turn. The most intriguing player might be redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. His name isn’t one you’ve likely heard of yet, but the staff is very high on him and he should get plenty of carries this spring. It’s also worth watching to see if freshman cornerback Johnathan Ford moves back to running back, his natural position.

New on the scene: Want to find the next Mason? Look no further than ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas. He’s the top-ranked player in Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class, and he has that combination of speed and power that puts him in the same category as Mason. The expectations are high for a guy who hasn’t even enrolled yet, but Malzahn said he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact. Expect Thomas to be eased into the rotation early in the season, but his workload should gradually increase with every game. The Tigers might also find their replacement for Prosch from the 2014 class. Tight end Jakell Mitchell signed with every intention of playing the H-back, and fellow freshman Kamryn Pettway could also get a look there. Both players will arrive this summer.

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