published Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Auburn expects another stellar ground attack

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    Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall throws in the first half of the annual A-Day spring game Saturday at Auburn, Ala. The Tigers did more passing in relation to running than they are likely to do in the 2014 season.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Auburn's first-team offense attempted 37 passes and ran the ball 25 times during Saturday's A-Day football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

That doesn't mean Gus Malzahn's Tigers will be employing that same ratio when autumn rolls around.

The running game was Auburn's bread and butter throughout the 2013 season, as the Tigers averaged 328.3 ground yards per game on the way to the Southeastern Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA title game. Auburn showcased its deep contingent of receivers in the spring game more than its solid stable of tailbacks, but Malzahn insists his rushing attack has been anything but minimized.

"We feel very good about our running game," Malzahn said in his postgame news conference. "In the first couple of weeks, we really focused on getting better up front. Our offensive line will be one of our strengths. Obviously it should be."

That Malzahn highlighted Nick Marshall throwing to the likes of Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and junior college transfer D'haquille Williams did not offend the senior tailback tandem of Cameron Artis-Payne or Corey Grant. Artis-Payne rushed 91 times for 610 yards last season as Tre Mason's primary backup, while Grant was the speed threat who amassed 647 yards and 9.8 yards per carry.

Artis-Payne rushed 12 times for 97 yards at A-Day on a Blue team that included the primary offensive and defensive weapons and rolled to a 58-3 win over the White. Grant collected 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries.

"I'm pretty sure we can account for what we lost," Artis-Payne told reporters in reference to Mason forgoing his senior season for the NFL draft. "We feel pretty good in our meeting room."

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    Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne (44) celebrates with wide receiver Quan Bray (4) after scoring a touchdown in the first half of the Tigers' A-Day game this past Saturday.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Marshall rushed only once in the A-Day game but was an obvious key to Auburn's ground game last season, compiling 1,068 yards. He was 13-of-22 passing for 236 yards Saturday, drawing praise from Malzahn for showing more comfort in the pocket and with his progressions.

Of course, the best-case scenario for Auburn's tailbacks would be having a passing game superior to last season that could keep defenses from loading the box.

"It would make for some easier runs for me," Artis-Payne said. "Nick growing our offense is a big part of us making a big jump in year two."

Said Grant: "It's going to be a sight to see when August comes."

Auburn's defense dealt with some nagging injuries this spring, but the Blue team still managed to hold the White offense to 85 yards and three first downs. Limiting the big play, such as a 49-yard reception Florida State made in the final minute after two missed tackles, is an area in which Malzahn believes his defense made some strides.

"I think our guys have a good idea about the foundation of our offense and our defense," he said.

Highlights from last season were shown before Auburn's A-Day game and during halftime, when players were presented their league championship hardware.

"As a coach, I think of that last game a lot," Malzahn said, "but when you reflect back and think about all the special things throughout the year, it was special handing out those SEC rings."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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