Auburn Tigers: Peyton Barber

Three keys: Auburn vs. Samford

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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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.
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.

SEC's lunch links

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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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.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 19, 2014
May 19
12:00
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The conference finals have started in both hockey and basketball. Rookie minicamp just wrapped in the NFL. Meanwhile, we all sit and wait for college football to come back. Get your fix with Monday’s lunch links.
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.
Before the beginning of spring practice, we made five predictions about the defending SEC champs. Some made us look smart. Others, not so much. Let’s take a look back:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCan Nick Marshall get Auburn going even faster?
Prediction No. 1: No slowing down

Gus Malzahn’s offense is no longer fast. It’s #Auburnfast. The coaches have begun using the hashtag on Twitter for everything from players’ 40-yard-dash times to their recruiting routes in New York City (see @rhettlashlee). Either way, it was evident from the first practice of spring that Auburn wanted to go even faster than last season. The entire second period was dedicated to pace, and the first, second and third-team units all worked on running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The key will be quarterback Nick Marshall and his comfort level with the offense. On Wednesday, Malzahn said Marshall was a lot more reactive this spring and that it was coming more natural to him. That’s a good sign for Auburn and a bad sign for SEC defenses.

Prediction No. 2: No Ford, no problem

It’s still a little early to say the defensive line will be better in 2014 without sack leader Dee Ford, but that’s only because we never got a chance to see a healthy group up front during spring practice. Injuries riddled the defensive line, forcing players such as Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright to move from tackle to end. Rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both missed time while defensive end LaDarius Owens, a starter last season, missed the entire spring with a foot injury. When everybody is healthy and when the six 2014 signees on the defensive line arrive this summer, it will be a deeper, more talented group than what Auburn had a year ago.

Prediction No. 3: More balance on offense

This one depends solely on Marshall’s progression as a passer, but if the spring game was any indication, Malzahn intends to throw it quite a bit more this season. Marshall went 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, and afterwards, Malzahn said the emphasis was obviously on throwing the football as it had been throughout the spring. Junior college transfer D’haquille Williams looked as good as advertised in the spring game, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. He adds another target to what was already a deep stable of wide receivers. Auburn will still be a run-first football team. That’s who it is, and that’s what Malzahn wants to do. But it’s not crazy to think that Marshall will average 10 or more passing attempts per game this season than he did last season.

Prediction No. 4: Open audition at LT

The prediction was that Auburn would wait until the fall to name a starter at left tackle, and to nobody’s surprise, it held true. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are veteran guys. They don’t need to know who the starter is going to be until the week before the first game. They’re going to keep plugging away like they always do. The only real takeaway from the spring that was that Auburn has two left tackles good enough to start, and if they can start on that offensive line, they’re likely good enough to start for the majority of teams in college football. There was also a thought that Avery Young would see time at left tackle, but he stayed on the right side for the duration of spring practice.

Prediction No. 5: Breakout candidates

Did we hit a home run with Daniel and Peyton Barber as our breakout candidates? No. But we didn’t strike out either. Daniel missed part of spring with a groin injury, but he returned and quietly had a strong spring game. The sophomore defensive end finished with three tackles, 2.5 for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry. Barber earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring, but he injured his ankle on his first carry of A-Day and missed the rest of the game. He went 10 yards on his lone carry, showing good feet and a good burst, but also fumbled at the end of the run. Looking back, the breakout player of the spring had to be junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, who took advantage of an opportunity and carved out a role in the secondary.
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.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Finish your taxes on time? Then sit back and enjoy Wednesday’s lunch links.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part V of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There are still five months until Auburn’s season opener, but with spring practice beginning Monday, football is officially back. Spring is an opportunity for coaches to see what they have, a time when position battles are won, and undoubtedly there will be a player or two, off the radar, who makes a name for himself.

Last year, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and linebacker Justin Garrett turned heads during spring practice.

Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who arrived in January, earned offensive MVP honors at the spring game and carved out a role in the Tigers’ backfield. Garrett, meanwhile, found a home at the Star position. His performance, highlighted by a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game, earned him a starting role before injuries derailed his season.

Now, as Auburn heads into Year 2 under coach Gus Malzahn, here are two candidates poised to break out this spring.

Peyton Barber, RB, freshman: When you’re high school teammates with Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the nation, it’s sometimes hard to create your own identity. It’s even harder when you commit to the same school. But that’s the route Barber took, and despite redshirting his first season, he’s out to prove that he’s more than Lawson’s high school teammate. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound back is built similar to Artis-Payne and earned rave reviews from the coaching staff throughout his freshman season. He didn’t ever play a down, but his talent was on display every day at practice. Former running back Tre Mason described Barber as ‘big, fast and quick on his feet.’ Now, with Mason gone, there’s an opportunity for the Georgia native. If he continues to play well and impresses the coaches this spring, he could earn himself some playing time next season. And, as if he needs it, there’s extra motivation for Barber knowing that ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas will arrive on campus this summer.

Elijah Daniel, DE, sophomore: The easy pick for the breakout player this spring would be Lawson. As mentioned above, he was a top recruit, and of the freshman defensive linemen who played last season, he showed the most promise. Most have already tabbed him as the replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end. But let’s not forget about Daniel. He finished the season with just nine tackles, but he was second on the team with 11 quarterback hurries and fourth with 2.5 sacks. The former ESPN 300 prospect seemed to play better as the season progressed, and his role increased because of it. He, too, will be in the mix to replace Ford this spring, and at the end of the day, the best player will play. It doesn’t matter how many stars you had from recruiting services -- though Daniel was pretty good in his own right -- the job will be won on the field. The best-case scenario for Auburn is that both Daniel and Lawson have breakout performances this spring, and the battle lingers on into the fall. The harder the choice, the better the team will be.

Other candidates: WR Ricardo Louis and S Derrick Moncrief
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
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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.

As expected, Auburn junior running back Tre Mason declared for the 2014 NFL draft Thursday.

He's foregoing his final year at Auburn for a chance at millions, and no one would dare blame him for his decision.

Following a stellar season that ended with a dynamic performance in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State, Mason had no choice but to leave Auburn early for a chance at the NFL.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAfter rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 TDs in 2013, Tre Mason had nothing left to prove at Auburn.
The truth of the matter is that Mason's stock will never be higher. That's certainly not a knock against Mason, but after leading the SEC with 1,816 yards (which broke Bo Jackson's school record) and 23 touchdowns, setting a school record for yards of total offense (2,374), and finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy race, there really wasn't anything else for Mason to prove.

He went from 161 yards as a reserve freshman to 1,002 last year and a national championship run this season. The chances of surpassing -- let alone duplicating -- what he did in 2013 are very slim. Not with SEC defenses looking to make a major rebound in 2014 and with defensive coordinators gunning for the Tigers' little wrecking ball.

Is Mason a first-round running back? He certainly has the vision, toughness, strength, speed and elusiveness to be in the conversation, but his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame could hold him back some. But another year of college ball won't help him grow.

Regardless of his size, Mason believes he's more than ready to take on the NFL.

"They’re getting somebody that’s a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to win," Mason said Thursday. "My mind is not just set on money. It’s set on championships. I have yet to win a championship, and my mindset is not going to change. God willing, I’ll win a championship at the next level."

We know about the short self life NFL running backs have, and another pounding in the SEC won't do much to help him. Sure, more coaching can always be a benefit, but what else does Mason really have to learn? He's eclipsed 1,000 yards in both a pro-style offense and a spread. He knows adversity all too well, considering he rushed for 1,002 yards in 2012 during a 3-9 season that saw his head coach get fired, only to turn around and creep up on 2,000 yards under new coach Gus Malzahn in 2013.

Does he have much more to prove against SEC defenses? Uh, no. Against Alabama's top-rated rush defense in that fateful final week of the regular season, Mason rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The next week in the SEC championship against Missouri's rush defense, which ranked 14th nationally at the time, Mason rushed for a career-high and SEC championship game-record 304 yards with four touchdowns.

In SEC play in 2013, Mason averaged 123.1 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. He also had 13 touchdowns.

In Monday's 34-31 loss to the Seminoles, Mason looked like the best player on the field for most of the night, rushing for 195 yards and a 37-yard touchdown that appeared to be the game-winning score with 1:19 remaining. With the way he played on Monday, you have to think that he would have finished much higher in the Heisman race.

Mason has been great for the Tigers, and there's no doubt that he immediately would've made them a title contender again in 2014 if he had decided to stay. But he absolutely made the right decision.

For Auburn, it's time to look to its already-loaded stable of running backs, which includes Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who each ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns this past season. Obviously, quarterback Nick Marshall (1,068 rushing yards) is a dangerous running threat. Auburn will take the redshirt off running back Peyton Barber and will have ESPN 300 back Racean Thomas coming in. Thomas could be a real stud for Auburn and could compete for solid playing time early.

The Tigers will certainly miss Mason, who was both a great player and person, but his family on the Plains had to know that it was his time to take the next step.

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