Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn led the nation in rushing this past season. Through 14 games, the Tigers averaged an astonishing 328 yards per game. Three different running backs finished among the SEC’s top-20 rushers, and Auburn had four of the top 20 if you count quarterback Nick Marshall -- who gained over 1,000 yards on the ground.
So how could the running back position possibly have any room left to improve?
It starts with the departure of Tre Mason. The junior star led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, but he opted to leave early for the NFL draft. As good as Marshall and the offensive line were, it was Mason who carried this Auburn offense. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than just one player to fill that void.
The other major loss in the backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean Jay Prosch was any less important. The team’s H-back played a critical role as the lead blocker for the Tigers, and it will be difficult to find somebody who was as good as his job as he was.
With Marshall back and four of the five starters on the offensive line back, Auburn is still going to be among the SEC’s top rushing teams, but if it wants to duplicate last season's success, it has to find a way to replace both Mason and Prosch in the backfield.
Battling for No. 1: Marshall and Mason were both among the SEC’s rushing leaders last year, but people forget that junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama transfer Corey Grant each had over 600 yards rushing in their own right. That’s more than some teams got from their leading rusher. Grant, who led the SEC with 9.8 yards per carry, provided a nice change of pace with his speed, but he also showed a physical side at times and could be in the mix as the team’s feature back this season. Artis-Payne is bigger and more physical, but he still has quick feet and a good burst that separates him from other players. The most likely scenario is that Artis-Payne and Grant will split carries, forming a dangerous duo on the Plains.
Strength in numbers: On signing day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said one can never have enough depth at the running back position. It couldn’t be more true at Auburn, where Malzahn has been known to play two and sometimes even three running backs in a game at the same time. We’ll get to the incoming freshmen, but the Tigers have some capable backs already on campus who are just waiting their turn. The most intriguing player might be redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. His name isn’t one you’ve likely heard of yet, but the staff is very high on him and he should get plenty of carries this spring. It’s also worth watching to see if freshman cornerback Johnathan Ford moves back to running back, his natural position.
New on the scene: Want to find the next Mason? Look no further than ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas. He’s the top-ranked player in Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class, and he has that combination of speed and power that puts him in the same category as Mason. The expectations are high for a guy who hasn’t even enrolled yet, but Malzahn said he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact. Expect Thomas to be eased into the rotation early in the season, but his workload should gradually increase with every game. The Tigers might also find their replacement for Prosch from the 2014 class. Tight end Jakell Mitchell signed with every intention of playing the H-back, and fellow freshman Kamryn Pettway could also get a look there. Both players will arrive this summer.