2014 Key Returnees:
Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant
Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas, Kamryn Pettway, Jakell Mitchell
I included the H-back position here in the fall, but didn't think about including Brandon Fulse, since he was more of a traditional tight-end than a FB/H-back. Of the newcomers, Barber and Thomas played, but only sparingly. Pettway and Mitchell red-shirted. Pettway figures to be a big cog in the machine going forward. Mitchell was tragically killed in a shooting last December.
The primary work-horses running the football were Cameron Artis-Payne, Nick Marshall, and Corey Grant. I'll hold off on talking about Marshall until next week. Corey Grant ended up with six fewer attempts in 2014, but only half of the yards. That could account for why Ricardo Louis took over more of the sweep role. Louis had 18 carries for 220 yards and an average of 12.22 yards per carry.
Grant is a perfectly capable running back. His size is very similar to Cameron Artis-Payne's. Many were asking during the season why he wasn't getting more touches. I think it's because the sweep was working better with Louis, and CAP was the work horse similar to Tre Mason in 2013. Grant could have done it - and maybe his speed would have broken a few more runs - but CAP was getting the yards.
Let's Take A Moment to Really Appreciate Cameron Artis-Payne
13 games, 303 attempts, 1608 yards, average of 5.31 yards/carry. That was CAP's stat line for the season. We all know Tre Mason had a stellar 2013; one of the best in Auburn history, actually. So it's not surprising that because we didn't see as many big break away runs that some weren't thrilled with the performance of the running backs.
However, let's really take a look at Tre Mason's stats. 14 games, 317 attempts, 1816 yards, 5.73 yards/carry. So 14 more attempts, one more game, 208 more yards. That extra game is also the 46 (FORTY. SIX) carries, 304 yards SEC Championship Game performance. He also had 23 touchdowns to 13 by CAP in 2014. So, yes, Mason had a better season in 2013 than CAP in 2014. He also had Jay Prosch blocking for him and a stronger offensive line.
CAP had a pretty dang good year in his own right, folks. Sure, he didn't have as many touchdowns, but 5.31 yards/carry is still excellent. Losing Jay Prosch cannot be discussed enough. Greg Robinson and Alex Kozan not being on the offensive line was a big deal, too.
I discussed in the offensive line review that the offensive line performed better than I thought while just watching the season progress. They weren't quite as good in 2014, but they were still good. CAP's performance in 2014 deserves a lot more acclaim than it received among many Auburn fans.
Auburn ran for the average for great football seasons in 2014. 2010 and 2013 had fantastic rushing numbers, but 2014 was third in total rushing yards going back to 2008. I think we can fairly say that Auburn's running backs performed at a high level, last season. Was the ground game dominant as in 2013? No, it wasn't. But it was still enough for us to look and say "that's a Running Back U backfield, for sure."
How the rushing attack will look in 2015 is a big question. I am not at all worried about them performing at a big level, as running backs have almost always been successful in Malzahn's offense. I'm just not sure who is going to tote the rock as the primary back, nor how many carries the running backs will get. Jeremy Johnson isn't likely to finish second on the team in rushing as Nick Marshall has the past two season - though if he hits his 1k yards rushing goal, he probably will - so that leaves the door open for other running backs to contribute.
You see, Auburn is probably going to throw the ball more in 2015 with a more traditional passing quarterback. That may mean more rotation of running backs, or it may just mean more pass plays and less carries for the running back group as a whole.
Either way, I'm confident that Auburn is going to have another fantastic running performance by someone in 2015. Whether that's Jovon Robinson, Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, or Kerryon Johnson when he arrives on campus, I don't know.
I know plenty of people love Roc Thomas, but I'm actually thinking it's Robinson or Barber that will take the reigns. Thomas had some fumble issues last year at times, and I just really don't like how he cuts and moves with the ball so much rather than using size and speed. That's a pure guess on my part though, since I obviously don't have access to what is happening at practices, but I know even Rhett Lashlee said Thomas is trying too hard at times to break every run.
It really could be any of them, though. I can't wait to see who.
Next Up: Finishing up with the Quarterbacks.