July 3, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - They come from different parts of the country. Their stories are as different as their running styles, but Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne have come together as Auburn running backs with big plans for the season to come.
"Of course, everybody wants to be the man," Mason says, "but we talk every day. We all have dreams of winning a championship and playing at the next level. We are looking to do this together."
Mason is from West Palm Beach, Fla., and is the son of renowned musician Vincent Mason, a member of the hip-hop band De La Soul. Artis-Payne grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., went to junior college in California and is the third of Victoria Artis and David Payne's 11 sons. Grant is from nearby Opelika, the son of high school football coach Ike Grant.
Mason, a slasher who can also go the distance, was a bright light in the darkness of a 3-9 season in 2012. He rushed 179 times for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns.
Grant, a sprinter who twice was the Alabama 6A 100-meter dash champion, carried just nine times last season for 29 yards. He had an impressive spring, working at both running back and wide receiver.
Artis-Payne, a bruiser with speed, was a junior college All-American at Allan Hancock Community College near Santa Barbara, Calif. He graduated in December, transferred to Auburn and made a big impression in spring practice. He was named the offensive MVP in the A-Day game, rushing for 117 yards and catching two passes for 47 yards.
Artis-Payne has seen enough to believe that Auburn's running game will do big things.
"Coach Malzahn established the first day that we are a run-first team," Artis-Payne says. "We love it. Coach Malzahn and Coach Lashlee are geniuses. They know exactly what they are doing and what it takes to win."
All three backs agree there is room for all of them in the offense first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will put on the field when the Tigers open their season against Washington State on Aug. 31 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"Overall, I believe it's a great group," Grant says. "We try to push each other every day. With these new guys coming in, they are just going to make us even better. I believe there is room for three guys as long as everybody works hard. Knowing everybody is going to carry the ball is going to be a good deal."
Here are their stories:
Cameron Artis-Payne, Jr., 5-11, 208
Toughness comes naturally for Artis-Payne. Growing up with 10 brothers, he had little choice but to be tough.
"We pretty much fought over everything," Artis Payne says with a laugh. I'm telling you, we fought for lunch, dinner, breakfast, video games, anything. It was a fight, no matter what was going on."
Artis-Payne focused on basketball through his junior year at Harrisburg High School. A coach talked him into playing football as a senior, and his journey had begun. He went to prep school at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., and then went all the way across the country to junior college. It was there that a promising future unfolded.
"Where I am from, a lot of guys don't make it out," Artis-Payne said. "A lot of guys are talented, but nobody actually goes anywhere. They play high school football and go get a job or whatever. There really wasn't a realization I could do something like this until I got out of that environment and went to California."
Artis-Payne says he learned as much about discipline at Allan Hancock as he did about football. When Auburn came calling, he remembered what he'd seen in 2010, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to the national championship.
"Everybody from where I was from was big on Auburn," Artis-Payne says. Cam Newton was here and Auburn was through the roof at that time. It never crossed my mind to come here, but when I got the opportunity and I saw the team and the atmosphere and all that, I couldn't see myself going anywhere else."
Tre Mason, Jr., 5-10, 196
Music has been part of Mason's life for as long as he can remember, but he admits it's probably a good thing he can run with a football.
"I love music," Mason says. "I grew up around it, hearing it every day, every night." Artis-Payne interrupts, laughing. "He can't rap at all." Mason nods his head. "No," he says, "I'm not as musical as my dad is."
Mason played football mostly for the fun of it from the time he was in the fifth grade, but he blossomed into a star and one of the nation's top prospects at Park Vista High School in Palm Beach. He thought he'd go to Miami or maybe Florida, but all it took was one visit to Auburn in 2010 to change his mind.
"I didn't really know much about Auburn up until the Georgia game," Mason says. "I wasn't really following college football. I had no clue who Auburn was. I said, `You know what? That's in the SEC. I'm going to take a visit.' I came to the Georgia game, and it was one of the craziest games I've ever seen. That day, I fell in love with Auburn."
Mason played sparingly as a freshman behind Mike Dyer, but when Dyer was suspended, he got his first start in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Last season, despite inexplicably getting few carries in most games the first half of the season, he broke the 1,000-yard barrier on his final carry of the season.
But what sticks with Mason most about last season is the misery of a 3-9 record. He says he and his teammates are intent on not letting anything like that happen again.
"There's nothing we can do about the past," Mason says. "We can only go forward. We try to step in as leaders and get everybody's mindset correct, make sure we are working as hard as we can, never skip a rep, goes as hard as you can every rep. We know what it's like to go through a 3-9 season, and it's nothing nice."
Mason says the determination is clear in offseason workouts and in players getting together to work on their own.
"I still wear my AU proudly every day, but wherever you go people are out there pointing fingers. `He goes to Auburn. He's not any good.' We want to turn it around. You lose two or three games in a row and it starts to become a domino effect. We're in control of that as players. We can't blame anyone else but ourselves."
Corey Grant, Jr., 5-11, 201
As last season unfolded, Grant didn't complain. He accepted his fate and did what he could to help the Auburn football team, but he didn't understand.
Grant was the offensive star of Auburn's 2012 spring practice. In preseason camp, he drew consistent praise. But when the season started, it was as if he'd been forgotten. He played in just six games in 2012. All nine of his carries came against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M.
"It really was hard," Grant says. "I had a good spring and good fall, then the season gets here and it's like the bottom falls out. You don't understand it. It was tough, but I got through it. We had talks here and there, but I just wanted to do my role instead of complaining all the time."
One of the state's top prospects, Grant thought for a long time he would sign with Auburn out of high school. But he signed with Alabama in February 2010.
"You know, you are told different things during recruiting," Grant says. "They needed a speed back at that time. Terry Grant used to be that guy, and he was going through injuries. They needed a guy like that, and I fit that position. I would be the only one, so I thought I could step right in and play. I thought that was a good idea, but after being there, it didn't work out."
After redshirting as a freshman at Alabama, Grant decided to return to Auburn, thinking he would play in Malzahn's offense. But Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for three seasons, left for Arkansas State. And Grant's wait continued. No Auburn player was happier when Malzahn returned as head coach last December.
"When I heard the news, I was happy," Grant says. "I was very happy."
Grant expects to work at running back and slot receiver when the Tigers return to practice in early August.
"Everybody is excited for fall camp to get started," Grant says. "We know it is going to be a tough grind, but you have to get through it to have a good season."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: