Auburn Tigers: Tre Mason

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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn opened spring practice in 2011, the honeymoon was already over. Less than three months after winning a national championship, there were questions about leadership, the quarterback and players off the field. The arrest of four athletes for armed robbery was a massive black eye on the university. And then, in the midst of spring, another body blow came as former players claimed they received money from boosters.

[+] EnlargeMalzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAs Auburn begins spring practice, Gus Malzahn has already turned the page on last season.
Gene Chizik’s program rotted from within. Auburn fell to 8-5 in the 2011 season and then bottomed out in 2012, when the Tigers finished 3-9 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. After a 42-point loss to Texas A&M, athletic director Jay Jacobs knew he had to make a change. Chizik was fired and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought back to turn around a team that was two years removed from winning a championship.

“The tough thing is sustaining [success],” Jacobs said recently. “There are peaks and valleys. We know how difficult it is to get to the peak. It’s awful difficult to get to that championship game. But it doesn’t take a lot to fall down to where you can’t even get to a bowl game.”

As Malzahn heads into this spring, his situation is not so different from his predecessor's three years earlier. Auburn is coming off an appearance in the BCS title game, but there were still questions about leadership, questions about off-the-field incidents and the big question as to whether the Tigers can handle expectations.

"We’re going to focus on us," Malzahn said Monday. "We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back from last year. We’re going to have that blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality that we’ve got to improve each practice and each game."

It’s that same blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality that carried the Tigers to 12 wins and an SEC title in 2013. It’s what Malzahn expects from his players when they take the field on Tuesday for the start of spring practice, but the difference is this is a new season and a new team that needs to create its own identity.

“What are you guys going to do?” former running back Tre Mason asked his teammates before he left. “You ask them a simple question -- what are you going to do to separate yourself from the next team? How much better do you want to be? How good do you want to be?

“You’ve got to let them answer that themselves. You can take somebody to the water, but you can’t make them drink.”

Mason was there for both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He knows the struggles that those teams went through, and though he’s moving on to the NFL, he wants to make sure this Auburn team doesn’t fall into the same trap.

“Auburn was here before us, and it will still be here after us,” he said. “So you’ve got to come in, and for that time you’re here, how are you going to leave your mark?”

That’s the challenge ahead for this Auburn team.

Unlike in 2011, when the Tigers lost eight starters on offense and eight starters on defense, this season’s squad has plenty of veterans returning in the fall who are more than capable of taking on leadership roles. And don’t expect a quarterback controversy with the return of potential Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Marshall.

As far as off-the-field trouble, the lone incident this offseason was cleared up Monday when Malzahn announced that cornerback signee Kalvaraz Bessent would in fact join the team this summer along with the rest of the 2014 class. The ESPN 300 prospect was arrested last month, but all charges were later dropped.

There’s no reason for another setback on the Plains. The pieces are in place for the Tigers to not only return to the national championship game but to win it.

“The key to it is never relax,” Jacobs said. “It’s a competitive league we’re in. The SEC West itself is very competitive. The trees are awful tall here. We’re going to continue to be a part of championships, and the way to do that is working at it every day. That’s what we’re doing.”

The quest for that next championship begins Tuesday.
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
This is Part III of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2013, Auburn ran it 72 percent of the time. That means for every time they threw a pass, they ran it three times. That’s closing in on teams such as Air Force, Georgia Tech and Navy, and yet, the Tigers don’t run a triple-option offense -- not a traditional one, anyway.

Even Gus Malzahn, a run-first head coach, would say his Auburn team ran the ball a lot last season. In fact, no team he has coached at the college level has run that much. The closest would’ve been when he was AU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and the Tigers ran 69 percent of the time, but traditionally, his teams have had more of a 60-40 split.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates returns after leading Auburn with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
So to say that Auburn will be more balanced on offense in 2014 isn’t exactly going out on a limb.

Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher, is gone. Greg Robinson, the league’s best run-blocking offensive tackle, left after his sophomore year. And Jay Prosch, arguably one of the nation’s top blocking fullbacks, played his last game against Florida State.

It’s still Auburn, though, and Malzahn is still the coach which means the Tigers are going to run it more often than they throw it. You can take that to the bank. However, don’t be surprised if the split on next year’s team is closer to 60-40 as opposed to 70-30.

How’s this for a prediction? Quarterback Nick Marshall will average at least 10 more passing attempts per game next season. That’s 27 for those counting at home.

Too many? Keep in mind that Auburn has its top four receivers back including Sammie Coates, the team leader with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. Marshall will also have tight end C.J. Uzomah, his go-to target down in the red zone, at his disposal.

But the real reason isn’t Coates or Uzomah. It’s the addition of the top 2014 junior college player in the nation, wide receiver D'haquille Williams.

From his RecruitingNation scouting report: “[Williams] has terrific tools and phenomenal ball skills/body control to consistently make plays even when covered. Possesses premier, immediate impact ability, but still must learn little nuances of the position.”

The incoming star has already enrolled and could be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver by the end of the spring. If nothing else, he and Coates should form a receiving tandem that’s as good as any other in the SEC. How can you not throw to that?

This will also be Marshall’s first spring practice with the team, and the emphasis will be on his improvement as a passer.

“He throws the ball well,” Malzhan said after the season. “I think the big thing is just getting his timing down with him and his receivers. And probably just giving him a little more freedom now that he will know the offense even better.

“Week to week, you have a game plan. It was good for him having that 30 days [prior to the BCS title game]. I think you could see that in the passing game. We’re looking forward to spring.”

Malzahn will also have Jeremy Johnson this spring, an asset he didn’t have a year ago at this time. The backup quarterback, considered a better passer than Marshall, threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. He could be in for a bigger role this coming season as the staff looks to find news ways to get him involved.

Ultimately, Auburn will still be a run-first team, but if the Tigers wants to play to their strengths and utilize all of their weapons, that means a more balanced offense on the Plains in the fall.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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Here we are at the end of another week, but thankfully a small taste of football is temporarily returning.

Let's take a look around the SEC as some schools have already opened spring practice and some are preparing for their first workout.
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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- At last month’s NFL combine, all eyes were on Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Tre Mason. Robinson blew away scouts by running a 4.92 40-yard dash and bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times. Mason didn’t disappoint either with a time of 4.5 in the 40. The performances were strong enough that both opted not to work out at the school’s pro day on Tuesday.

The attention quickly turned to defensive end Dee Ford, who wasn’t cleared to work out at the combine because of a back procedure he had in 2011.

“They said they looked at some MRIs, and they just saw some things that they didn’t want to chance at the combine,” Ford said Tuesday. “I was definitely surprised. I had no clue that I wouldn’t be able to [work out]. It kind of knocked my training off a little bit because everything is timed when you’re training.”

Ford, known for his confidence and charisma, still made headlines in Indianapolis when he claimed he was better than top defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, comparing the former South Carolina star to a “blind dog in a meat market.” He finally got his chance to back up those comments at Tuesday's pro day.

"People can compare, but the combine is the combine," Ford said. "You’re just showing your athleticism. I think I did great. I think he did great."

The day started in the weight room where the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Ford put up 29 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. It wasn’t quite the number Robinson had, but it was still eight more reps than Clowney had. He also had a 35 inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-4 inch long jump before moving to the indoor facility for the 40-yard dash.

With NFL scouts looking on and his future in the balance, Ford ran a 4.59 in his first attempt and improved to a 4.53 with his second attempt.

“I’m very pleased,” Ford said. “I put in a lot of work.”

It’s still too early to tell if Ford’s performance will move him into the first round, but it certainly didn’t hurt his chances. More importantly, the back issue was not a problem, and his knee, which he injured last August, held up just fine.

“It was never an issue,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said regarding Ford’s back. “He hadn’t been limited in any way. He’s done what we’ve asked in the weight room -- working out, conditioning. He looked very good and performed very well.”

The next step for Ford is individual workouts with teams.

Former Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had a good day, running a 4.51 40 and jumping 40 inches in the vertical jump. In all, 14 players worked out on AU’s campus including former safety Demetruce McNeal, who was dismissed from the team in August.

“It’s real exciting to watch these guys workout,” Malzahn said. “They performed very well today, got a real good response.”
Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s not often that a player makes a tackle and runs for a touchdown in the same game, but that’s exactly what freshman Johnathan Ford did in Auburn’s 62-3 rout over Western Carolina back in October.

When Ford arrived at Auburn, he was tabbed as a running back. That’s the position he wanted to play, and that’s where the coaches were going to put him. However, in the middle of fall camp, he was moved to cornerback because of an injury to Jonathan Jones and an overall lack of depth in the secondary.

It wasn’t a completely new position for Ford. In fact, a number of college coaches, including new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, an assistant at Alabama at the time, felt that the three-star prospect projected better as a cornerback at the next level.

They were right. Ford embraced his new role and quickly ascended up the depth chart. By the middle of the season, he was listed on the two-deep depth chart and wound up participating in 13 of Auburn’s 14 games. Two months earlier, he was looking at a possible redshirt had he stayed at running back.

The coaches didn’t forget about his former position, though. He still took reps at running back in practice, and against Western Carolina, he broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown on the second run of his career. He finished the game with two carries for 45 yards.

“I think you can see he’s a phenomenal player,” head coach Gus Malzahn said afterwards. “We moved him to corner this year, and we’ll see after the year what happens. The fact that we have three experienced backs obviously has something to do with that, but he’s a threat, no doubt.”

As Ford enters his second season, the big question is whether he stays on defense or moves back to his original position. There’s an obvious need at cornerback this spring with Chris Davis gone, and the top signees not arriving until the summer. But there’s no clear cut favorite at running back either with Tre Mason leaving early for the NFL.

The more likely scenario is that he stays at cornerback and battles Jones for the starting role opposite Jonathon Mincy, but don’t be surprised if he still takes some reps at running back this spring.

Where does Ford want to play?

“It doesn’t matter,” he said this past season. “I just want to help the team as much as I can this year. That comes first. Everything else is just a bonus.”

With that kind of attitude, the coaches will find a role for him somewhere. He’s too talented and too versatile not to make an impact for the Tigers this fall.

5 burning questions: SEC letdowns

February, 26, 2014
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It’s hard to stay on top. Just ask Alabama, which saw its season do a complete 180 after an improbable missed field goal return that stunned college football. Or what about Florida? Two seasons ago, the Gators were playing in a BCS bowl game. Last season, they finished 4-8 and lost to a FCS team for the first time in school history. Georgia and Texas A&M fell victim to letdowns, too, as both came into last season with high expectations.

The SEC is as good a league as there is in college football, and new teams rise to the top every year. The consequence of that is that some teams have to fall.

Last year, it was Auburn and Missouri which rose to the top, knocking some of the traditional powers off their pedestal. Neither team reached a bowl game the year before, but made it to Atlanta and played each other for the conference championship.

Now, as we count down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, can we expect a letdown from Auburn or Missouri? Will it be their time to fall?

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsThe return of QB Nick Marshall gives Auburn hope that it can make another run at the SEC title.
Auburn: Talent-wise, the SEC champions are better off than their title-game counterpart. The Tigers were just three years removed from winning a national championship, and their recruiting classes during that time reflected that. They had the players. They just needed a coach like Gus Malzahn to come in and rejuvenate the program.

Mission accomplished. Auburn nearly won another national championship. This time, however, the Tigers want to stay on top. They don’t want to fall like they did after the 2010 title.

It starts with the quarterback position. The loss of Cam Newton was too much to overcome back then, but fellow junior college signal caller Nick Marshall opted to come back and will do his best to defend Auburn’s conference title next season. He’s already being tabbed as an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

The offense will miss running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson, but eight starters return to give Marshall a strong supporting cast.

The big question is on defense. Auburn lost five starters from a defense that was suspect to begin with. The good news for the Tigers is that veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has had a knack for making improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, and this looks to be his latest reclamation project.

The schedule doesn’t do Auburn any favors with trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, but with the talent returning and the current coaching staff, the Tigers should expect to be one of the SEC favorites again next season.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesQB Maty Mauk returns, but Missouri still has to overcome some key losses on both sides of the ball.
Missouri: The situation is a little more dire in Columbia. The Tigers haven’t recruited as well as Auburn in recent years and are losing seven starters on offense and seven starters on defense from last year’s team.

The loss of quarterback James Franklin isn’t as bad because Missouri has Maty Mauk coming up behind him. Mauk played well last season when Franklin was injured. The redshirt freshman finished with 1,071 yards passing, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and has a chance to be one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.

However, running back Henry Josey and wide receiver L'Damian Washington will no longer be at his disposal, making the presence of Dorial Green-Beckham that much more important.

Similar to Auburn, the real problem is on defense. The pass-rushing combination of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy was second to none in the SEC, but both players are gone, along with the team’s leading tackler, Andrew Wilson, and its lockdown cornerback, E.J. Gaines.

If there’s a saving grace for Missouri, it’s the schedule. The Tigers don’t have to play Alabama, Auburn or LSU, and based on the opponents, they have a chance to go 7-0 at home next season.

Still, the fans voted Missouri as the most likely SEC team to fall in 2014, and it’s hard not to expect some type of letdown from this team next season. They proved they belong, but maintaining that success is a brand-new challenge.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:00
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Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.

Room to improve: Running back

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn returned to the Plains in December 2012, he assembled a top-15 recruiting class in less than two months. It was a class that was impressive given Auburn’s record the year before, but it also featured a number of impact players who contributed to the Tigers’ BCS title run this past season.

“That's the way we recruit,” Malzahn said recently. “Nowadays you're going to recruit guys you think can come in and make an impact right off the bat.”

It’s no surprise that Auburn’s 2014 class, which signed last week, was also full of instant-impact type players. The emphasis might have been on the defensive side, but there are plenty of playmakers who could help the offense early on.

WR D'haquille Williams
Laplace, La./Miss. Gulf Coast CC
Synopsis: There’s not a player in the class with higher expectations than Williams. He comes in as the No. 1 junior college player in the country. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he looks SEC ready, and he plays a position that should get him on the field early. Sammie Coates enjoyed a breakout year for Auburn this past season, but Coates is better suited as a deep threat. Williams, on the other hand, can be more of a possession wide receiver, and if all goes well, he could be the one who emerges as the go-to guy for Nick Marshall. It doesn’t hurt that he enrolled in January and will participate in spring practice. The expectations are high, but Williams is the type of player who could thrive in the right offense and with the right team.
Malzahn’s take: “He’s the No. 1 rated junior college player in the country. He’s got unbelievable skills. I got a chance to get to know him back in his high school days and really think he’ll have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat.”

Racean Thomas
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 RB Racean Thomas ought to fit well in Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense.
RB Racean Thomas
Oxford (Ala.) High School
Synopsis: There were rumblings that Alabama passed on Thomas as a part of its effort to land top recruit Leonard Fournette. If that’s the case, the Crimson Tide might be kicking themselves for years to come. Thomas was easily one of the top players in the state, and the No. 5 running back nationally. He comes to Auburn as a perfect fit for Malzahn’s offense and as a guy who should get a look this fall. When Tre Mason left early for the NFL, it created an opportunity at running back, and though there might be more experienced candidates ahead of him, Thomas has the talent and ability to move up quickly on the depth chart. He wants to play early, and he’ll do everything in his power to make it happen.
Malzahn’s take: “He was the top running back on our board. Our offensive staff identified him early. They recruited him extremely hard. He’s a kid in this class who was very loyal to us. He could’ve went anywhere and chose not to. He stayed with us. We really feel like he’s got the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact.”

OG Braden Smith
Olathe (Kan.) South High School
Synopsis: Auburn took a hit when starting left tackle Greg Robinson declared early for the NFL draft, but had he not done that, there’s a strong possibility Smith would have not been a part of the this class. Malzahn admitted that he and his staff started recruiting ESPN 300 offensive lineman late, but they did just enough to lure him to the Southeast. It won’t be easy for Smith to crack the starting rotation with four of the five starters returning for Auburn, but he has the versatility to make an impact somewhere this fall. He’s listed as a guard and could become the top backup at both guard spots, but he can also move over and play tackle, which automatically makes him a candidate to replace Robinson at left tackle.
Malzahn’s take: “I think he gives us some flexibility -- at tackle, or he can move to guard. He can really run, and he’s stronger than your average freshman coming in. He’s very serious. The way you all see him on TV, that’s the way he is. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s football. He’s working out. He’s our type of guy.”
On the eve of national signing day, it's always fun to go back and examine where the top players in the SEC from this past season were ranked coming out of high school.

Of the 23 position players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team, seven were three-star prospects, according to the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. The only five-star prospects were Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney was one of only two five-star recruits on the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team.
Even more telling, only eight of the 23 players were ranked among the top 10 players at their respective positions.

Of note, Vanderbilt's record-setting Jordan Matthews was ranked as the No. 153 receiver, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson was the No. 125 offensive tackle, Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the No. 91 offensive guard, Missouri's Michael Sam was the No. 75 defensive end and LSU's Lamin Barrow was the No. 82 outside linebacker.

Here's a closer look:

OFFENSE

  • QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 39 QB, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • RB Tre Mason, Auburn: Four stars, No. 21 RB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Four stars, No. 55 overall prospect, No. 4 RB, Class of 2012. Grade: 81.
  • WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 52 WR, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 153 WR, Class of 2010. Grade: 74.
  • AP Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Three stars, No. 62 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: No. 7 TE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • OL Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: No. 125 OT, Class of 2009. Grade: 74.
  • OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Five stars, No. 3 overall prospect, No. 1 OT, Class of 2011. Grade: 87.
  • OL Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect. No. 7 OT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • OL Greg Robinson, Auburn: Four stars, No. 10 OG, Class of 2011. Grade: 80.
  • C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: No. 91 OG, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
DEFENSE

  • DL Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Five stars, No. 1 overall prospect, No. 1 DE, Class of 2011. Grade: 95.
  • DL Dee Ford, Auburn: No. 35 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • DL Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Four stars, No. 124 overall prospect, No. 11 DT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • DL Michael Sam, Missouri: No. 75 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Four stars, No. 11 ILB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Four stars, No. 99 overall prospect, No. 7 OLB, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • LB Lamin Barrow, LSU: No. 82 OLB, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Four stars, No. 19 overall prospect, No. 2 S, Class of 2011. Grade: 84.
  • DB E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Three stars, No. 57 CB, Class of 2010. Grade: 76.
  • DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 43 S, Class of 2010. Grade: 78.
  • DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Three stars, No. 78 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 77.

SEC's lunch links

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
12:00
PM ET
The day after the Super Bowl is always depressing for football fans. It’s the last real game until the college season starts again in August. But maybe a look around the SEC in today’s lunch links will be just the thing to pick you up.

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