Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson (6) hands off to Auburn running back Peyton Barber (25) during warm ups Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. (Julie Bennettfirstname.lastname@example.org)
-- Tre Mason is gone, but behind him is a load of blue-chip talent and some anxious running backs ready to lead Auburn's offense in 2014.
Mason's departure to the NFL leaves a 2,000-yard void on the roster, and three running backs ready to fill the hole. The battle between seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, and underclassmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford will rage through the spring before freshman blue-chip Racean Thomas joins the fray in the summer.
Who will step up? Who will provide a diverse an all-in-one diverse running option like Mason, whose power, speed, field awareness and elusiveness sparked the Tigers to their best season on the ground ever?
"Me and Cam talk about it all the time," Mason said last week. "[Barber] is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us. That guy is good. He's very consistent when he's scrimmaging. He's very consistent."
Whether the answer is a redshirt freshman remains to be seen. The competition will be wide open in the spring.
"I feel like I'm an every-down back just like Tre," Barber said. "I can run, catch, block and pretty much do it all. Anything you need me to do I can do it."
The Tigers leaned on Mason, Grant and Artis-Payne this season. Grant is listed as a junior has mostly been used as a speed sweep player and likely will not be in the fold as an every-down back. He had 647 rushing yards and six touchdowns while averaging 9.8 yards per carry.
Artis-Payne transferred from junior college and was the Tigers' spring game MVP in 2013. He shared carries with Mason early in the season before Mason exploded on the scene with his 132-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 35-21 loss to LSU and he never looked back.
Ford moved to defense to help with a thinning secondary, and mostly played special teams as a freshman. Coaches were not sure last week if the freshman would move back to running back, where he produced 73 yards and one touchdown on six combined carries against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, in the offseason.
"The offensive coaches sure hope so," said running backs coach Tim Horton, "but that's something we haven't decided yet."
"I love running," Ford said. "That's been my passion, that's the reason why I wanted to come to Auburn."
Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns in his first season. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry, and rushed for a career-high 133 yards against Western Carolina. He's best performance in the SEC came against Tennessee, when he rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries. He also had two carries -- on back-to-back hand-offs -- for 36 yards and a touchdown against Missouri in the SEC Championship.
Thomas, a rising senior out of Oxford (Ala.) High, is a five-star prospect and is considered one of the top five running backs in the country, according to 247sports.com's composite rankings.
Thomas rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior.
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