With quarterback Nick Marshall, receiver Sammie Coates and most of the offensive line back from Auburn's Southeastern Conference championship lineup, the biggest question facing Gus Malzahn's rapid attack was whether Cameron Artis-Payne could replace Tre Mason at tailback.
So far, so great.
In opening victories over Arkansas and San Jose State, Artis-Payne rushed 42 times for 289 yards, or 6.9 yards a carry. That two-game stat line actually falls short of Mason's monstrous 46-carry, 304-yard performance in last December's defeat of Missouri in the SEC title game, but the 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior is evoking comparisons to last year's Heisman Trophy finalist.
"He's had a big impact," Malzahn said. "He has run the ball extremely hard and has a lot of yards after contact, which is very important. He is the type of runner, too, who gets stronger as the game goes on."
Mason's greatest traits were yards after contact and strengthening as the game progressed, so how are Mason and Artis-Payne different?
"That's a good question, because I think there are more similarities than differences," Malzahn said. "Tre was such an exceptional between-the-tackles runner, and I think Cameron has some of those same traits. Cameron has also gotten a little quicker and a little faster from this time last year.
"He probably lost anywhere from five to 10 pounds, and I really think that helped him."
Mason thrived on the national stage late last season, rushing for a combined 778 yards in wins over Georgia, Alabama and Missouri and in the loss to Florida State in the final BCS championship game. Artis-Payne gets his first big test in the limelight as a starter Thursday night, when the No. 5 Tigers visit No. 20 Kansas State on ESPN.
Auburn led the nation in rushing offense last season with 328.3 yards a game and is averaging 330 yards so far this season. Speed-sweep threat Corey Grant has rushed 20 times for 176 yards (8.8 per carry), while Marshall has 19 carries for 122 yards (6.4).
"Everybody wants to keep getting the ball," Artis-Payne said in a news conference after the San Jose State game, "but at the end of the day, we've got to go with the looks they're giving us. I'm going to keep improving with every carry. I'm not where I want to be yet, but I'm doing all right."
Artis-Payne is a Harrisburg, Pa., resident who arrived at Auburn last year after two seasons at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif. He had 133 yards against Western Carolina and 102 against Arkansas State last season, and he was often potent while spelling Mason, rushing twice for 36 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter of the SEC championship game.
Though Grant is known more for his quickness, Malzahn believes he has another effective one-two punch.
"It's kind of 1 and 1-A with Cameron and Corey Grant," Malzahn said. "Corey has done a good job so far of running between the tackles with some tough yards, and I really think he's improved. Then we've got the two freshmen that we'll definitely bring along who we feel like are both very talented."
The more touted freshman tailback, Roc Thomas, has nine carries for 51 yards (5.7).
Auburn's ground game has been effective so far, but turnovers continue to concern Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Artis-Payne fumbled away a possession in the 45-21 win over the Razorbacks, as did Marshall and Thomas in the 59-13 whipping of the Spartans.
"There is nobody who cares more about it than Cameron Artis-Payne or Nick, but it's frustrating as a coach when it's something you've emphasized all year long," Lashlee said in a news conference this week. "You preach and preach and preach about it being the one thing that will get you beat, and we've had three instances where we didn't take care of the ball. Roc is a freshman, so that's a little different, but with the two seniors, that's unacceptable.
"They know that, and they've paid the price for it, because it's been emphasized more than it ever has. To me, it takes no ability in the world to hold on to the football. It's all about effort and want and being ball-conscious. You can't break four tackles and be at the 6-yard line thinking you've already scored."
Auburn had an open date last Saturday, which Lashlee said could result in the Tigers going quicker "in the direction we feel like our team can go this year" had the bye week occurred in week six or seven. The Tigers have lofty goals this season and are off to a promising start, but their final 10 games contain a staggering seven teams ranked in the top 20.
Beginning Thursday night at Kansas State.
"This will be a great test," Lashlee said. "We've played at home twice, and we're comfortable with that. Now we go on the road, where it's uncomfortable. I think it's a great measuring stick to see where we're at.
"We're going to learn a lot about this year's team on Thursday."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.