Call him the man in the middle.
On paper, senior running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are the favorites to replace NFL-bound Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason as the feature back of Auburn's high-octane rushing attack.
Both the powerful Artis-Payne and the speedy Grant played significant roles in the Tigers offense, getting important carries even after Mason's breakout stretch halfway through the 2013 season.
But Artis-Payne and Grant, who are both looking to expand their specific skill sets this spring in hopes of grabbing Mason's spot, will only be on the Plains for one more year. Who will replace the production of Auburn's dynamic backfield duo after next season?
Enter Racean "Roc" Thomas, a 5-star running back and the state of Alabama's Mr. Football award winner for the 2013 season. When the explosive Thomas arrives on campus this summer, he will enter with tremendous hype from Auburn fans following his 2,211-yard, 32-touchdown senior season in Alabama's highest level of high school football.
However, Auburn's running back of the future might already be on campus, getting a chance to break out this season.
Peyton Barber is the true wild card of Auburn's running back battle this spring. While many Auburn fans are looking to either Artis-Payne or Grant as the feature back of 2014, Barber has gotten equal reps with the rising seniors as a redshirt freshman.
"[Barber] is getting a lot of reps, which is good," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after last Saturday's scrimmage, one where Barber recorded a rushing touchdown. "He definitely needs reps with different groups. You can see he’s improving. He wants to be good, and he’s a tough guy."
Barber's toughness was on full display last season, when he impressed coaches and teammates as a scout team running back.
"Being a scout team guy, you learn a lot," Malzahn said earlier this spring. "Those are situations that usually make or break a lot of guys that are young. They either get tough and fight through it or they go the other way."
Barber fought through it, and now he is in the running for a starting job without recording a single carry in a college game.
The former 3-star running back from Alpharetta, Ga., received the highest praise from the player he hopes to replace as Auburn's star running back.
"[Barber] is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us," Mason told AL.com's Brandon Marcello before the BCS National Championship Game in January. "That guy is good. He's very consistent when he's scrimmaging. He's very consistent."
Although he has not been available to speak to the media this season, several of Barber's teammates have told reporters he has continued to shine in spring camp.
“I’ve been hearing from some of the defense that Peyton is untouchable," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "Going against our first team all last year helps him tremendously as a running back. I think that helped him adjust to the game and adjust to the speed.”
Standing at 5'11" and 225 pounds, Barber's physique and running style is similar to Mason's, especially after Barber developed more elusiveness to go along with his powerful nature last season.
"Peyton's a big kid," starting left guard Alex Kozan said. "Peyton's freaky."
Perhaps that freaky talent and Mason-like frame could make Peyton Barber the surprise story of the preseason.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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