Transition years are never easy, and the success or failure of Auburn's first season under head coach Gus Malzahn hinges on his ability to spark new life into an offense that finished last in the SEC with 305 yards per game.
The biggest question facing the Tigers this offseason has been at quarterback, where Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier battled to a stalemate this spring. The inability for either to separate allows incoming freshman Jeremy Johnson and junior college stud Nick Marshall to state their cases this summer.
But while the quarterback position remains unanswered, what Malzahn's team did prove this spring is that it doesn't matter as much as it did in the winter.
The reason is simple: Auburn has talented running backs—plural.
Junior Tre Mason is a known commodity. In an offense that was as predictable as the sunrise last season under former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns.
Not bad considering everyone on the planet knew what was coming.
The 5'10", 196-pounder runs hard, packs a hefty punch and has enough speed to be dangerous in space. His 32 rushes of 10 or more yards tied him for fifth in the SEC with former Florida running back Mike Gillislee, was one more than former Vanderbilt star Zac Stacy and was only four behind Alabama's T.J. Yeldon.
"Tre, he's a little more balanced," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told AL.com this spring. "He'll run it up in there, he's not a speed guy, but he's got good speed. He's probably the best of the three at making people miss in the open field and he catches the ball really well."
So in other words, he's a perfect fit in Malzahn's scheme, which is designed to be a run-based, no-huddle attack out of the spread. Mason's ability to play a variety of different roles allows Malzahn to get creative with his play-calling and be unpredictable—a 180-degree change from last season's debacle.
But it's Mason's running mates that can really kick this offense into overdrive.
Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the large crowd at A-Day, rushing for 117 yards and a touchdown and catching two passes for 47 yards en route to MVP honors.
Wearing the No. 44 of former Tigers 1,000-yard rusher Ben Tate, Artis-Payne looked like a Tate clone. At 5'11", 208 pounds, he is perfectly fit for those tough yards between the tackles and is a tremendous pass-blocker. That's big for Malzahn, who benefited from Mario Fannin's ability to protect Cam Newton during Auburn's 2010 title run.
Like Mason, Artis-Payne's versatility will pay tremendous dividends and create flexibility in the offense.
But who's going to play that "Onterio McCalebb" role as a changeup back/receiving specialist?
Enter Alabama transfer Corey Grant.
Grant is largely a mystery since his skipped the spring game due to a fever but was the talk of the Plains this spring. The 5'11", 201-pound speedster has the home run ability of McCalebb, but is built to withstand more punishment.
He may not need to worry about that last part though.
Officially listed as a "slot receiver" behind Quan Bray, expect Grant to get a heavy dose of carries on speed sweeps and join Bray as one of Auburn's biggest threats on screen passes.
In his seven years as a college coach, Malzahn's offenses have produced nine 1,000-yard rushers.
That track record coupled with the talented and versatile cast that exists on the Plains is a recipe for success for Malzahn.
Malzahn doesn't need his quarterback to be the second coming of Newton. I'm sure he'd appreciate it, but it isn't a requirement.
Former Tiger Chris Todd set what were then Auburn single-season records in 2009 with 22 touchdown passes and helped Auburn set what was then a single-season record for total offense with 5,613 yards.
Todd was successful because he knew the offense and put the ball where it needed to be when it needed to be there.
Having a talented group of running backs will take some pressure off whoever wins the quarterback job and will allow Malzahn the flexibility to go with the hot hand if need be.
Will the Tigers contend for the division? No. That's premature.
But the stable of running backs will allow Auburn to stay in games and be competitive, which should be the goal for Malzahn in Year 1.
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