Auburn Football: How 2013 Backfield Compares to BCS Champions of 2010
The Auburn quarterback takes the snap and hands the ball off to his running back on an end-around.
The back is small, quick, agile and racing from East-to-West, sideline-to-sideline, stretching a tired defense.
He's one of the fastest players on Auburn's roster, and now Gus Malzahn has him in space.
The running back gets to the edge. He turns the corner. He burns down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown score.
That's current Auburn running back Corey Grant, finding paydirt in the third quarter of the Tigers' season opener against Washington State.
Grant's doing his best to channel former Auburn speedster Onterio McCalebb, who scored on many end-around sweeps just like that during him time on the Plains from 2009 to 2012—including the Tigers' 2010 national championship season.
Then, McCalebb was stretching defenses sideline-to-sideline under Malzahn the offensive coordinator. Now, Grant is doing the same under Malzahn the head coach.
But Grant is just one part of the Auburn rushing attack, which has rolled up 596 yards through the first two weeks of the season. There are more pieces to the puzzle when it comes to the Auburn running game, and each piece seems to fit perfectly with what Malzahn wants out of his depth at running back in his hurry-up, no-huddle system.
Malzahn has a formula for his backfield, the standard for which was set during the Tigers' BCS National Championship run in 2010.
Of course, the Tigers can't rely solely on Grant to run East-to-West every down. First, Malzahn needs an all-around, every-down back, who can carry the load when needed and take hits between the tackles and bounce plays outside when he has the chance—a la Mike Dyer of the Tigers' 2010 campaign.
Malzahn has that every-down-back in junior Tre Mason, fresh off a 1,000-yard season with the Tigers in 2012.
Still, Mason's best strength is his speed and outside running. For Malzahn's offense to be at its best, it needs a power runner to be able to pick up tough yards inside and convert the third-and-short plays that so plagued Malzahn and the Tigers in 2009 and 2011—when a certain 6-foot-6, 250-pound Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterback wasn't there to plow through the line of scrimmage.
Enter Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer known for churning out tough yards between the tackles, a seemingly perfect complement to Mason and Grant.
Together, they're the Auburn backfield. Together, they're the perfect set of tools for Malzahn to work with against SEC defenses this fall.
"Running back is definitely one of the strengths of our offense," Malzahn said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "They are all three different. We can utilize them in different ways. So far, they've all three been very solid."
Last week against Arkansas State, Artis-Payne led the way for the Tigers on the ground, rushing for 101 yards and score—covering most of that yardage on tough runs between the tackles.
Mason and Grant may have had the flashier, break-away runs through the first two games of the season, but Artis-Payne has been the hammer for the Tigers inside.
"It seems as if it's forming that way, and that's fine with me," Artis-Payne said last Sunday of his role as the more physical back of the three. "I like it that way anyway."
It's a good thing for the Tigers that Artis-Payne enjoys that role, because he's well-built for it.
In fact, each of the Tigers' three running backs is well-suited for their duties within Malzahn's offense.
Each of their skill sets complement the other, and each of them are in position to feed off of one another as the season progresses.
And while it may only be through two games and Auburn's entire SEC slate still to come, the Tigers are averaging 298 rushing yards per game—more than the 284.8 rushing yards per game the national championship team averaged in 2010.
"We know this is a run-based offense, so it's going to take all of us to get through the year," Mason told the Opelika-Auburn News on Tuesday. "It's motivation. One guy will have a big run and come to the sideline and say, 'Now it's your turn.'
"We have to keep pushing each other. That's what it takes."
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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