Auburn's Tre Mason will forgo his senior season and make himself eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, the running back announced Thursday afternoon.
"It's been a dream since I was young," Mason said, via Alex Byington of the Opelika-Auburn News. "I'm a dream chaser, and now I'm just trying to make a dream into reality."
In 2013, Mason rushed for a school-record 1,816 yards—besting Bo Jackson's longstanding record from 1985—and a school-record 23 touchdowns. Mason led the Tigers all the way to the BCS National Championship Game, and scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 37-yard run with one minute and 19 seconds to play, which could have been the game-winner.
The Tigers ultimately fell short—but Mason will still be remembered for years to come on the Plains as one of the greatest running backs to ever play at Auburn.
That's pretty tough to do at a place they call "Running Back U."
But as Mason rides off into the sunset and joins the professional ranks, Gus Malzahn and the Tigers coaching staff will begin to contemplate just how they will manage to replace his production as Auburn looks to make another run in 2014.
For five straight years, Auburn has featured a 1,000-yard rusher, going through Mason and Mike Dyer back to Ben Tate in 2009. Even in the Tigers' dismal 3-9 season in 2012, Mason rushed for 1,002 yards.
But in 2014, it would appear that the Tigers will be forced to take a by-committee approach, without any proven workhorses projected for the fall roster.
That doesn't mean the Auburn run game is slowing down any time soon. What the Tigers will lack in star individuals, they will make up for with quality depth.
Rising seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will be back to play a major role in Auburn's bid to repeat as SEC Champions—after each already rushed for 600-plus yards this season.
Artis-Payne arrived on the Plains last spring by way of junior college, contributing all this season in relief of Mason as a between-the-tackles runner. Grant, the speedy Alabama transfer, had a breakout season in 2013, fitting in Gus Malzahn's offense by taking carries around end and racing defenders to the edge.
If Malzahn chooses to play them that way, the one-two punch of Artis-Payne and Grant could emulate past tandems during Malzahn's tenure at Auburn as an offensive coordinator. Artis-Payne would act as the Dyer or Tate back, running between the tackles inside, while Grant compliments him and works the outside, a la Onterio McCalebb.
Of course, at a more sturdy 210 lbs., Grant has shown more capabilities as a downhill runner than McCalebb—which should only prove to add to this tandem's flexibility in attacking SEC defenses in every-down situations in 2014.
Behind Artis-Payne and Grant, the 2014 Tigers will feature a wealth of talent rounding out the depth chart. Rising sophomore Johnathan Ford, who switched to cornerback for much of 2013 based on need due to injury, could return to the offensive side of the ball and vie for carries this fall. Running back Peyton Barber spent 2013 redshirting and playing on the Auburn scout team, but will hope to burst onto the scene in a big way in 2014.
Next fall, Auburn fans will also likely see the debut of 5-star running back recruit Racean Thomas, who is a firm Auburn commit with national signing day approaching on Feb. 5. Thomas, a highly-touted prospect and an Under Armour All-American, could see significant playing time even as a freshman in 2014.
Regardless of who is in the Auburn backfield on a given play next season, they will be lining up next to Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall—who rushed for 1,068 yards himself in 2013 as part of Auburn's zone-read attack. As a senior, Marshall will have an even better grasp of Malzahn's system in 2014, after having a chance to go through spring camp with the Tigers coaching staff for the first time.
If Marshall continues to improve, it can only mean big things for the Auburn running backs by proxy.
Auburn shocked the world in 2013, putting together a thrilling run to the BCS National Championship Game on the legs of one of the most potent rushing attacks that college football has seen in years.
While no one is going to be able to replace Mason right away, someone will find a way to step up and carry the load—the way Mason did after Dyer, and Dyer did after Tate, Tate after Kenny Irons, and Irons after Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
They always seem to find a way at Running Back U.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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