Here comes Corey Grant and Auburn...
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Heisman Trophy finalist, on stage at the ESPYs, led the Southeastern Conference in rushing. Tre Mason delivered for Auburn in many ways last football season.
Alas, he's gone to the NFL. But Auburn has experienced running backs who can fill the void, and some younger players, too. That's part of what fall practice is about.
"It's a good competition…let the best man win," says Corey Grant, one of the players vying for more playing time this season.
Mason rushed for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. Shall we meet the players who can pick up those yards? There's Grant, who rushed for 647 yards (and averaged 9.8 yards per carry to do it), there's Cameron Artis-Payne, who rushed for 610 yards, there's Peyton Barber, who was redshirted, there's Roc Thomas, a prized signee who rushed for 2,211 yards as a high senior last season and newcomer Kamryn Pettway, a big back who rushed for 1,402 yards more as a senior.
Certainly, experience puts Grant and Artis-Payne a step ahead as Auburn heads to its third fall practice Sunday. Then there are the younger guys.
"It’s nice having those guys, they help push me to get better every day," said Artis-Payne. "I don’t really worry about competition; I’m just worried about getting better myself."
Artis-Payne said he's worked on "speed and quickness" since arriving as a junior college transfer last season.
"I can feel my time coming. I feel like it’s here," he said.
Grant already has the speed and quickness, but says he wants to prove he can run up the middle and not just to the outside.
"One of my main goals throughout spring was proving that I can run between the tackles," Grant said. "Throughout the season, I mainly ran on the outside. But with Tre leaving, and me and Cam having to step up and replace him, I wanted to prove that I can be one of those backs who can run between the tackles.
"I think I'll have more chances throughout camp to prove that."
Artis-Payne was in the running for a starting job last fall, but Mason's experience in a fast-paced offense put him ahead. Now, for Artis-Payne, it's "definitely different from last year, knowing what you're doing, knowing your assignments and not having to second-guess yourself. Now you can play fast and actually feel comfortable in what you're doing."
Auburn will don shoulder pads for the first time Sunday after a couple of days of drills.
"With the freshmen just watching around right now, me, Cam, Peyton, the older guys are getting a lot of one-on-one good coaching time with coaches just trying to focus on us right now so when the freshmen join us we’ll be ready to roll," Grant said.
Grant's advice for the newcomers? "Just take one day at a time. You’re going to make mistakes here and there, because this offense is fast paced, it gets complicated some times, but just take it a day at a time and learn and with repetitions you’ll get better.
"They’re actually doing a lot better than what I thought they were. They’re doing a lot better than the normal freshmen that just come in. They’ve been doing extra studying so they know the playbook a little bit better."
Already, Grant said, the offense has improved in quarterback Nick Marshall's second season.
The clock is ticking for Grant and Artis-Payne. They're both seniors, and they can follow Mason to the NFL. Grant said he can't be worried about that.
"Like Coach Malzahn says, things like that will take care of itself if you focus on our team and get better every day. As long as I’m focused on us and getting better, all that will come."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine