One of the dominant storylines to come out of SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama, was the absence of star power like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Tre Mason, Aaron Murray and the crop of last year's superstars.
Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne will fill that void.
The 5'11", 210-pound senior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is one of the leaders of the Auburn running back corps heading into fall camp, along with speedster Corey Grant, redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and true freshman "Roc" Thomas.
A preseason third-team All-SEC running back, according to Phil Steele, Artis-Payne started in the mix with Mason last year but took a back seat as Mason emerged during Auburn's run to the SEC title. Despite being relegated to backup status, Artis-Payne topped the 100-yard mark in two games (Arkansas State and Western Carolina) and finished the season with 610 yards and six touchdowns.
Head coach Gus Malzahn let Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant, who's more of an edge threat, sort their roles out as the season went on last year, and according to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, per James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser, it's likely that Artis-Payne will slide into the 1A slot with Grant still being the home run hitter.
Lashlee told Crepea:
Cameron, he's a good all-around back. he's a good guy on first down all the way to third down. I think he is a good downhill runner and he'll be good like Tre was in the short yardage but he's leaned up a little bit and showed some quickness and agility in space. They can do a lot of the same things, but they still kind of complement each other well to where it's almost 1a and 1b and it may never change. Corey is a little more of a big-play guy, Cam is going to kinda wear on you. I think that's just probably the way it goes.
Expect big things from Artis-Payne, because he's the perfect back in the perfect system to become a star. What makes him so good?
For a bigger running back, Artis-Payne has remarkable vision.
He's light on his feet, anticipates holes developing and hits them quickly, turning short gains into long gains.
Check out the highlight below from Auburn's spring game (3:09 mark). Artis-Payne takes the handoff on the zone read, sees a hole developing and is through to the second level before the defense knows what hit it.
Once he's in the secondary and in traffic, he sees the safety (No. 12) dropping down and his wide receiver, "Duke" Williams (No. 1), locked up with a corner outside. He cuts it outside and turns what would have been an impressive 10-yard run into a 28-yard run that set the offense up for a score.
Having that vision and awareness in traffic is huge for Auburn's offense—an offense that's predicated on taking what the defense gives it through the zone read. This vision will also help in the screen game, where running backs are counted on to set up blocks in space.
Much like Mason, Artis-Payne packs a mean punch.
He angles himself so well that he rarely gets hit hard, but when he does, he's capable of running over, through or with defenders on top of him.
Check out the video below of Auburn's game last year versus Florida Atlantic. Artis-Payne again gets to the second level, sheds a linebacker in traffic and then carries four defenders inside the 5-yard line.
This is what to expect from Artis-Payne. He's a true all-around back who can handle the load between the tackles but also hit the home run if he gets the chance. He'll get plenty of chances this fall, which brings us to the next point.
Last season, Mason was a great running back in a great system. The second part of that equation remains intact. Malzahn has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight seasons as a college head coach or assistant.
|Gus Malzahn's 1,000-yard Rushers (HC and OC)|
|David Oku||2012||Arkansas State||243||1,061|
Yes, starting left tackle Greg Robinson and fullback Jay Prosch are gone, but the Tigers return basically everybody else who played a role in their success on the ground last year, including four offensive linemen, H-back Brandon Fulse and 1,000-yard rusher Nick Marshall at quarterback.
It's a system that's ready-made for instant success, just as we saw last season when the Tigers rushed for 328.29 yards per game, tops in the nation. Mason got hot in that system last year, and the Tigers rode him to within 13 seconds of a national title.
But Artis-Payne was neck and neck with the Heisman finalist as late as mid-September, and another year in that system should work wonders for his development.
It's no secret that Malzahn wants to throw more in 2014.
"That was really probably the No. 1 priority in the spring, to be more balanced," Malzahn said. "We led the country in rushing last year. When you do that, defenses have to take some chances. We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take chances."
If that happens—and judging from Marshall's progression in the spring game and the presence of Williams alongside veteran receiver Sammie Coates—there's nothing to suggest that it won't. The holes for Artis-Payne to weave through will be even bigger.
If that doesn't scare opposing defensive coordinators, I'm not sure what will.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.