Mason, Auburn’s backfield have plenty to prove

Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Auburn tailback Tre Mason still feels like he has a lot to prove after he and the running game couldn’t consistently produce against Southeastern Conference competition.

“People tell me I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t fast enough maybe,” Mason said. “I take all of that as motivation to get bigger, stronger and faster and try to prove everyone wrong.”

The Tigers’ new-look backfield also is shaping up to be bigger, stronger and at least more versatile this season, which opens against Washington State on Aug. 31. Mason, who ran for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, is the lone holdover from a group that struggled against sturdy SEC defenses in 2012 during a 3-9 season.

Added to the mix are junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and freshman Peyton Barber. Fellow signee Johnathan Ford volunteered to help out a thin secondary during preseason camp with the backfield depth.

It’s a beefier bunch than a backfield that featured the slender Onterio McCalebb behind Mason last season. Alabama transfer Corey Grant, who played sparingly last season, also provides depth.

The ground game wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the more pronounced deficiencies in passing last season, especially in SEC games.

The Tigers ran for 148.4 yards per game and 16 touchdowns – both the lowest totals since 2008. They ranked last in the SEC against league defenses, producing just 86.8 yards on the ground and averaging a paltry 2.6 per carry with five touchdowns.

Now, four starters return on the offensive line and Mason has more physical help. Plus, JUCO transfer quarterback Nick Marshall is a running threat.

“I feel like there’s three really good guys that all do different things well,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “We’ve got a bigger guy in Cameron, who’s really good in pass protection. You’ve also got a guy like Tre and Corey who have maybe a little bit different style of running. And all three fit well into what we do.”

The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Artis-Payne has already shined in his first chance before Auburn fans. He was MVP of the spring game after rushing for 117 yards and catching two passes for 47 yards. Artis-Payne was a 2,000-yard rusher as a sophomore at Hanckock Junior College and said he feels at home in the no-huddle offense of Lashlee and coach Gus Malzahn.

“The offense fits me well,” Artis-Payne said. “I really like coach Malzahn’s offense. You can’t help but like it. It makes it to where you can be successful in the offense whether you’re a speed guy or a power back or you fit both roles. You can’t do nothing but be successful in this offense.”

He also expects big things from Mason, who averaged a modest 59 yards in SEC games.

“I think Tre’s going to shock a lot of people,” Artis-Payne said. “I think he’s going to have a good season. You know, me and Tre, we talk a lot, and he’s really determined to show us what he can do, especially on a bigger stage, because I don’t think we’re going to go 3-9 again.”

Malzahn’s Auburn offenses during his previous stint as offensive coordinator have thrived with a speed guy like McCalebb to run sweeps and complement workhorse power runners like Mike Dyer (and, in 2010, quarterback Cam Newton).

Lashlee likes the makeup of the backfield.

“All three of those guys bring something different to the table for us and I think all three are going to play and probably play a good amount,” he said. “There’s some good versatility there and I think that gives us some depth.”

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