March 20, 2013

Spring competing: RB

AUBURN | Tre Mason pulled off perhaps the greatest single achievement of the Tigers' 2012 season by gaining 1,002 yards in an offense that didn't operate properly.

That's a testament to his drive and athletic ability.

Still, his situation entering 2013 is anything but settled. The 5-foot-10 tailback remains Auburn's most experienced ball-carrier, though new position coach Tim Horton said his hierarchy will be determined by practice performance and not track record.

"He's done things on the field that obviously others haven't. It's still a little early. I think the jury's still out," Horton said of Mason. "He's going to be asked to be a leader and he's got to step up and do it. If he does, that's great. If he doesn't, then someone else will."

The Tigers don't have remarkable depth at a position that has defined the program for decades. Though Jay Prosch said his transition to H-back has been smooth, he won't be a major factor when it comes to carrying the ball. That task, at least for now, will fall upon a trio of players: Mason, junior Corey Grant and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne.

"Obviously we want more than that," Horton said. "We need to keep them healthy in spring practice because our numbers aren’t quite what we would like them to be. Next spring at this time, we’ll be in a little better shape because they’ll all be back and we’ll have (signees Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber)."

Artis-Payne is an intriguing story. He signed with Rutgers after a prep career in Harrisburg, Pa., but failed to qualify and spent two seasons at a California junior college. Artis-Payne wasn't always dedicated to the game, though he gained a new appreciation for his talent while on the west coast.

He's quickly building a good reputation on the Plains.

"He’s always early. He’s one of those guys that’s going to stay late," Horton said of Artis-Payne. "He’s really been impressive in terms of his attention to detail -- not just as a football player but as a student. He’s given me a lot of reasons right now to trust him."


Contributors returning

  • Jay Prosch (Sr./10 starts)
  • Tre Mason (Jr./6 starts)

Others returning

  • Corey Grant (Jr./0 starts)


  • Cameron Artis-Payne (Jr.)

SETTING THE SPRING SCENE: There is ample talent at this spot, but divvying roles could be tricky. Tre Mason returns as the workhorse starter, though his size (5-foot-10) and above-average acceleration make him a candidate to become the speed back that's so important to Gus Malzahn's misdirection system. The real questions surround Artis-Payne, who is something of an enigma after so-so numbers in high school prefaced a big second season in California. Is he really as good as advertised? Corey Grant is hanging around as well after impressing last spring. He's drawn praise for work in the weight room, which always helps when trying to earn the coaches' trust.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Tre Mason transitioned from bit player to workhorse in 2012, showing the speed and durability to be a featured guy in the Southeastern Conference. His most obvious weakness is blocking, though his effort hasn't been questioned. Mason isn't a big guy and never will be a big guy. He's said privately that retaining the featured back role is his goal. Now is the time to demonstrate his value to a coaching staff ostensibly unfamiliar with his skill set.

GUY WITH THE MOST TO GAIN: Cameron Artis-Payne. He has a chance to complete his transformation from ho-hum prospect to front-line SEC starter. True opinions may not leak until the fall, though coaches will know by A-Day if they have a real player here. Artis-Payne has impressed observers with his dedication to fitness. He also has made a name for himself as a point guard in the intramural leagues, exhibiting unusual athleticism without any hint of unsportsmanlike behavior. Does it matter that he's a good basketball player? Not at all. Still, it's interesting that his competitive drive is so strong even when he's out of season.

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