AUBURN | Auburn is expected to resume its place among the nation's top championship contenders in 2014.
Fresh off winning the SEC Championship and falling 20 seconds short of winning the BCS National Championship, the Tigers return many players behind the program's magical run during Gus Malzahn's first season.
Still, there are holes to fill.
This is a three-part look at key areas that Auburn will focus on during the offseason in order to repeat their success of 2013. Today, we'll examine how assistant coach Tim Horton and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will go about keeping the Tigers' ground game healthy and happy.
The biggest news here is very big. Tre Mason's junior season was a storybook situation during the 2013 season. He entered the season as one element of what was expected to be a three-headed hydra at tailback, but took complete command of the position during the trip to Baton Rouge.
Mason broke Bo Jackson's record for single-season with 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns. It takes a real man to play at Jackson's level. Mason, in some important ways, performed at an even higher level last season. Though Mason lacks Jackson's size, he proved himself to be a fast, durable and creative back absolutely capable of carrying an offense on his shoulders.
He will be discussed generations from now as one of the best ever to play in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And Mason went about his work in a classy and respectful manner -- sometimes complimenting opponents after bringing him down against all odds.
Mason sought early entry into the NFL. His college career has ended.
Auburn also will lose H-Back Jay Prosch. His statistical profile is meager at best -- zero carries and five catches in 2013 -- but the Mobile native became the physical embodiment of Gus Malzahn's demand that the Tigers regain their edge. Prosch needed some time to acclimate to his position in September, but emerged as a consistent and aggressive element of the ground game in October and beyond. He learned to use several different kinds of techniques to clear holes for Mason, speed back Corey Grant and quarterback Nick Marshall.
Prosch had complete command of his role during the season's second half. That was a very important part of why the Tigers were able to run their way to Pasadena. His contribution shouldn't be overlooked.
So who remains? Let's take a look.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Senior -- Artis-Payne, to me, is on Mason's level in terms of being able to thrive as Auburn's featured tailback. He has massive legs that churn non-stop and enough speed to pull away from all but the best defenders. Given a chance to work in the Southeastern Conference title game after Mason's tour of duty concluded, Artis-Payne unloaded an impressive two-snap performance:
cap td from AuburnSports.com on Vimeo.
Now, yes, Missouri's defense was weary from taking blow after blow from the Tigers throughout the first three quarters. With that said, Artis-Payne showed (once again) that he's light on his feet, changes direction when he needs to do that and knocks defenders backward when he needs to do that. Plus, Artis-Payne will be 23 years old this fall and he knows it's time to fish or cut bait in terms of making football his career. A great season in 2014 could make him an NFL property -- and he knows it.
A little extra motivation won't hurt.
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