Jan. 9, 2014
Running back Tre Mason announces he's moving on to the NFL after a record-breaking Auburn season (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Wearing an Auburn jacket and shirt and carrying an Auburn cap in his hand, running back Tre Mason said Thursday he will pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
Three days after he led Auburn to within 13 seconds of a national championship and minutes after meeting with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Mason said at a press conference that will declare for the NFL draft, passing up his senior season.
"I want to start by telling the Auburn family I appreciate them and I love them," Mason said. "I loved playing for Coach Malzahn. We had the best year, a great time. He recruited me out of high school. This was a dream come true by coming to Auburn."
Mason finished his Auburn career in spectacular style, running 34 times for 195 yards in the BCS Championship Game. In the SEC Championship Game, he ran 40 times for 343 yards. He broke Bo Jackson's single-season record with 1816 rushing and broke the school record with 23 rushing touchdowns.
Mason gained 1,002 yards last season on a team that struggled to score. For his career, he has 2,979 yards, the most after three seasons of any back in Auburn history.
With 1:19 left in the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl, Mason bolted 37 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 31-27 lead. But Florida State scored with 13 seconds left to snatch away the victory. It wasn't until that was done, Mason said, that he started to focus on whether to move on to the NFL.
"I was just focused on winning that game," Mason said. "I wish we would have. I love my teammates. They are my brothers. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world."
Mason, who said he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, said he leaned heavily on his family in making his decision.
"My dad played a big role in this," Mason said. "The lifespan of a running back in the NFL is very short. I had a great year. Also Coach Malzahn helped in this decision. He said I had a very good year and he was expecting it."
Mason praised coaches from former strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall to current strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell to running backs coach Tim Horton to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
"Coach Russell and Coach Yox helped me get bigger, faster and stronger," Mason said. "Coach Lashlee and Coach Horton helped me with some things I needed to work on, like ball security. They helped me become a better running back and also a better man."
Malzahn, as Auburn's offensive coordinator, recruited Mason out of Park Vista High School in Palm Beach Fla. The "speed back" Malzahn signed became the toughest runner in the game.
"People knew we were running," Malzahn said. "They knew he was getting it. We played some very good defenses especially late in the season. And that's when he was at his best. Special backs have that ability. When the moment is biggest, that's when they make a play. He did that the other night.
"The thing that stands out to me about Tre Mason is he wants to win. He doesn't get distracted by all the other stuff. ... In my opinion he is the best running back in college football right now."
Auburn rebounded from a 3-9 record in 2012 to move to the verge of winning the national championship this season. The Tigers finished 12-2 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. There are even better days to come, Mason said.
"I see them being national champions," Mason said. "That's not going to change. Me declaring for the draft isn't going to keep me away from my teammates. They are still my teammates and my brothers. I'm going to try to make it seem like I never left. I'm going to stay in touch with these guys and make sure they are bonding right - keep grinding and do what it takes to get back to the top."
It was that attitude, Mason said, that made Mason as special in the locker room as he was with the ball in his hand.
"As a coach you are always looking for leaders," Malzahn said. "Tre was one of our leaders. He led by example and helped us get to the national championship, 13 seconds away from winning it."
Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will go into spring practice as the top returning running backs. In a redshirt season, freshman Peyton Barber made a big impression on his teammates and coaches. Freshman Rudy Ford moved from running back to cornerback but could return to running back.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: