Auburn football preview 2013: Tigers' running game should be strong again

Todd Van Emst/Auburn University photo

There are question marks at quarterback and wide receiver, but Auburn shouldn't have trouble picking up yards on the ground.

Thanks to standouts like Bo Jackson, Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, just to name a few, Auburn has earned the a deserved reputation as Running Back U over the years. Some schools consistently have great quarterbacks and some have great wide receivers, but even when the Tigers are awful, they get solid production out of the running backs. As bad as the offense was in 2012, Tre Mason still managed to put together a 1,000-yard season.

Going into 2013, Auburn appears to be loaded at running back. Mason is the only player with proven on-field success, but JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne should be a lock for a solid season, and either Corey Grant or Johnathan Ford (maybe both) will likely contribute in the speed back role. Peyton Barber isn't getting much hype, but he has good size and will provide depth at the position. We don't know who will be taking snaps for the Tigers, and the receiving corps is so unproven it's scary. But behind a good offensive line, the backs should flourish.

Tre Mason, JR, 5'10, 205 lbs.

Mason was, quite literally, the only bright spot in the offense last season, and it's really amazing he was able to gain 1,000 yards for a unit that averaged 305.0 yards per game (just 235.1 in SEC action). As the returning offensive MVP, he'll get the first shot to be the feature back. And even though Artis-Payne has what it takes to be a stud, don't expect Mason to be relegated to second-string. At worst, he'll be the 1-B option.

Mason has bulked up a bit since list season, but even at 205 pounds, one wouldn't expect him to have the size and strength to be a feature back and carry the ball between the tackles in SEC play. He disproved that theory last season, and there's no reason to think he can't have a bigger year in Malzahn's offense. Mason does have good strength to go along with good agility and great speed. He works as hard as anyone off the field, and he has lofty goals on it, hoping to eclipse the 1,500-yard mark this season. That may sound like a stretch, but after Mason's performance in 2012, it would be foolish to doubt him.

Cameron Artis-Payne, JR, 5'11, 210 lbs.

It's hard to believe Artis-Payne is just 210 pounds; he looks much bigger in pads. Nevertheless, CAP has impressed in his short time on the Plains. He was good in spring practice, and on A-Day he was the best offensive player on the field. While Mason proved last season he can run between the tackles, CAP looks like he was born to run inside. He doesn't have Mason's speed, but he plows through the line and is tough to bring down.

You might think the bruising back doesn't have a place in Malzahn's offense, but as Ben Tate showed in 2009, CAP can be and should be a great asset. He and Mason will probably get roughly the same number of carries per game, and if he's the hot back in any particular game, he'll get the bulk of the touches. CAP likely won't carry outside as much as Mason, but that won't stop him from having a great impact on the offense. Don't be surprised if the two are often on the field at the same time.

Corey Grant, JR, 5'11, 205 lbs.

Grant didn't make much of an impact last year, rushing just nine times for 29 yards in six games, but he's the favorite to take Onterio McCalebb's place as the speed back and get plenty of action running the jet sweep. He certainly has the "speed" part down, running a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, but two good backs ahead of him and a quarterback that will run the ball, too, Grant might not receive as much playing time as most think.

The coaching staff hasn't made any mention of this, and it's just speculation at this point, but we wouldn't be surprised if Mason took most of those speed back carries. He has the required wheels, and his ability to carry inside makes him a bigger threat. Malzahn and Gene Chizik always wanted Squirrel to add inside running to his outside game, but he just wasn't big enough to handle the load. With Mason, that isn't an issue. Grant will get some carries, but Auburn may be better served to have Mason and CAP on the field as much as possible.

Johnathan Ford, FR, 6'0, 186 lbs.

As a four-star recruit, Ford comes to Auburn highly-touted out of high school. Unfortunately for the true freshman, it will be hard to get playing time ahead of Mason, CAP and Grant. However, at 6'0 and 186 pounds, Ford is built more like a smallish wide receiver than a smallish running back. He has good speed and athleticism, and is the kind of player Malzahn is talking about when he mentions getting the ball to playmakers in space. While he won't get a ton of carries, Ford could be a candidate to catch some passes in some role, especially if Auburn's receivers are struggling.

Peyton Barber, FR, 5'11, 217 lbs.

Another true freshman, Barber is built much more like a traditional running back. He won't be expected to receive much of a load this season, but the depth he provides will be a valuable asset. With his size, Barber should be able to come in and carry the offense for a while in the event of injuries or fatigue, and he could see some time in short-yardage situations. But, Barber will have to wait a year or two before he gets enough playing time to become a household name.

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