Former JUCO star Cameron Artis-Payne will get more carries this season; Photo: USA Today Sports
March Madness is just about upon us! No, I'm not talking about basketball. I'm talking about spring practices starting up around the country. Now is one of the times where young players have a big chance to make an impression on the coaching staff. This year we are bringing back the "Filling the Void" series as we look at some of the more interesting position battles and who will be replacing some of the best players from around the country.
Earlier we talked about who would replace AJ McCarron at Alabama. It's only fitting that next up is Auburn.
In 2013, Gus Malzahn orchestrated one of the great comebacks in college football history. He took over an Auburn team that went 0-8 in the SEC and he took them to the National Championship Game.
Malzahn took the Tigers from last in the Conference in Total Offense to finishing second, behind only Texas A&M. After finishing 9th in the SEC in Rushing Offense in 2012, the Tigers led the SEC (and the Nation) with 328 ypg.
One of the major reasons for the turnaround of the Auburn offense was Tre Mason. As a sophomore, Mason was a solid player on a subpar team. In 2013, he blossomed and really took off in the second half of the season. In his final nine games, he ran for over 100 yards in eight of those games (the only outlier was against FAU, who Auburn beat by 35 points). Mason played his way into being a Heisman Trophy finalist and he also played his way into the record books by rushing for 304 yards in the SEC Championship Game.
Who's filling the void?
Corey Grant, Senior (2012 stats): 647 yards rushing, 9.80 ypc, 6 TD
Cameron Artis-Payne, Senior (2012 stats): 610 yards rushing, 6.70 ypc, 6 TD
Peyton Barber, Red-shirt Freshman
Roc Thomas, Freshman
What's happening this spring?
Grant and Artis-Payne have experience in the offense and despite not having the same connection Mason had with QB Nick Marshall, they do have the experience of playing with him and that will only make them better. Grant and Artis-Payne will jockey for playing time this spring.
Grant brings the speed and Artis-Payne is built more like an atypical running back. I think the coaching staff already understands what these two players bring to the table and I don't see them changing that too much this spring.
The two players with the most to gain this spring are sophomore Jonathan Ford (depending on if he's getting reps at DB or RB) and red-shirt freshman Peyton Barber.
What to expect heading into the summer and fall?
Auburn's top recruit from the 2014 class, Roc Thomas, arrives on campus in time for fall practice. I expect that he will be given every opportunity to hit the ground running, especially if Barber or Ford don't impress this spring.
Malzahn should feel confident going into the fall with the tandem of Grant and Artis-Payne. They are solid RBs but they have yet to show what Mason showed he could do last year. As Nick Marshall gets more and more comfortable running the offense, who is at RB could matter less than it did last season but right now Auburn still needs a feature workhorse if they want to repeat the success they had last season.
I would be very surprised if anyone other than Grant and Artis-Payne get the bulk of the carries in the opener against Arkansas but as the season goes on I expect Barber or Thomas to start carrying more and more of the load, especially with Grant and Artis-Payne being Seniors.