Nov. 9, 2013
Tre Mason has led Auburn's running game to the top of the SEC (Todd Van Emst photo)
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By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. - He rushed for a 1,000 yards last season, so Tre Mason obviously knew his way around the football field. But the Auburn tailback said all along this year would be better with a new coaching staff and the team's new attitude.
He saw it in the first game playing for head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee this season.
"They're gurus at what they do," Mason said.
Auburn's offense has returned with a powerhouse running game after 2012's lost season. The Tigers have swept through the first two-thirds of the season leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing by a huge margin. The running backs - Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, along with quarterback Nick Marshall - were the reasons why.
Mason's second 1,000-yard season is just a long run away as Auburn plays Tennessee on Saturday. Artis-Payne and Grant combined for another 1,000 yards.
Running backs coach Tim Horton says in of the three could be leading the way, proving it by having each of them lead the team in rushing in the first three games.
"The thing that has been hard is getting all three of them playing time," Horton said. "Tre is having such good success and you have such confidence in him when he's in a groove. But they are all team guys and they just want Auburn to win."
The roster says they're all about the same size, but they bring a different style. Mason isn't a bruiser, at 5-foot-10, 205, but he's likes to run up the middle, and, with a quick step, can outrun the fastest defenders. Artis-Payne is solidly built at 5-11, 210, and will mix it up in the heart of the defense. Grant, at 5-11, 205, is pure speed.
Horton says Mason's season is impressive because he's gained most of his yards when it meant the most.
"One of the things is big-time players play big in big games," Horton said. "When you play in the SEC, big games are SEC games. Some of his best games last year where not against maybe some of the better opponents Auburn played. He got 1,000 yards, and, yes, that was a tremendous season. But this year the thing he has been able to do that is really impressive is against LSU, against Ole Miss, against Mississippi State, against Texas A&M and against Arkansas, those are his best games as a runner, as a catcher and as a kickoff returner. That's something that he takes a lot of pride in. I think all of us do."
Mason left a win over Arkansas on Nov. 2 with 168 yards rushing, and 921 yards on the season. Marshall, who was the second-leading rusher after nine games, appreciates a good runner.
"Tre is a special guy in the backfield, because he can pop one at any time, on any defense," Marshall said. "He's a special kid. The offensive line opens holes for him, and he's just able to gash them and make plays with his legs."
Malzahn likes Mason for things besides the run. "He's a veteran guy. He understands blocking schemes." But, yes, he likes the running, too. "Probably the biggest thing that has impressed me this year is his ability to make the first guy miss and his yards after first contact. He's stronger. He's very durable. He's made a lot of tough yards for us this year."
He rushed for those 1,000 yards last year, but, even early on, he wanted this year to be different than last season's difficult days.
"As leaders on the team we try to remind everyone of the feeling we had last year," Mason said. "We're trying to have a big turnaround this year. We know what that feeling was like and it's not a good feeling. We're trying to have a better feeling than last year."
Artis-Payne is experiencing a different season. Last year, he was at Allan Hancock College in the California Community College Athletic Association. He led that league in everything. He was Auburn's A-Day Game offensive MVP.
Now, he's averaging more than seven yards a carry in the SEC.
"He is a competitive young man and he's a pleaser in the sense he really wants to do well," Horton said. "He's very coachable. It bothers him when he doesn't contribute as much he thinks he should. I like that. He wants to be in the mix, and deserves to be in the mix. One of the tough things in coaching is to balance that playing time with one who is performing at a high level and two other guys that you have a lot of confidence in."
Artis-Payne said he knew the running game would be deep.
"We knew coming into the season and this game that the running game was going to be a strength for the team. It has been," he said.
Grant was the heir-apparent to running the speed sweep held by Onterio McCalebb in the preceding seasons. But Grant has shown a willingness to turn up field quickly and turning on his blistering speed. Guys who are averaging almost 10 yards a carry can do that.
"When he's had an opportunity to play, Corey has been outstanding," Horton said. "He's helped us win games, and very important games, starting with the first one. I think he's had a very good year."
And that leaves Horton with the happy dilemma of finding enough carries for his running backs. At least he has the offense to do it.
"We're going to run the football first," he said.
And first in running is where Auburn finds itself thanks to Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: