December 14, 2013

A study in toughness


AUBURN | Tre Mason isn't going to win the Heisman Trophy.

Not this year, anyway.

The award will go to Florida State's Jameis Winston, who pieced together an excellent season for an excellent team that managed to finish its season undefeated. His off-the-field issue is the lone blemish, though the Downtown Athletic Club asks voters to choose the most outstanding player and not the most outstanding citizen.

Tre Mason should finish second.

It's my belief that he has the ability to win the most prestigious individual award in college football. For him, it's a question of opportunity. Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent the first month of the season experimenting with the Tigers' attack -- adjusting personnel groupings, play sequencing and, in some cases, the plays themselves.

Mason didn't become the primary back until the LSU game, when he finished with 132 yards on 26 carries. That was a full workload by Auburn standards at the time and led to a 21-carry game against Ole Miss.

Mason finished with 77 yards against the Rebels. A solid day, no doubt, but not exactly a clear view of what was ahead.

Texas A&M was the game. That was the moment we all watched No. 21 do his thing and agreed that he was the star. Twenty-seven carries for 178 yards including an entertaining body-surf touchdown via center Reese Dismukes.

That's how a statement is made.

Mason nearly was unstoppable when his team needed him most. During the Tigers' final five games, Mason rushed for 868 yards and 13 touchdowns. That's only 5.6 yards per carry, granted, but that's life when every single defense knows exactly how Auburn is going to attack it.

There will be some modest gains.

After a career spent in the press box, I moved to the field in October. Our site needed more art from the games, I am an adequate photographer and, like with Mason, ability and opportunity hit a crossroads. It's a different world down there. It's easier to see the subtleties of the game -- the violence of a defensive lineman's hands, the way Nick Marshall communicates with his skill guys without words, the way Malzahn and Lashlee collaborate and the incredible collisions that make me wonder how these players rise to their feet so quickly.

From this perspective, Mason is even more impressive.

He gets banged around. A lot. He's good at avoiding gnarly hits, but it's impossible to avoid them all when the ball is in his hands 30 times per game. Mason never flinches, never gets tired, never asks for a break. He's the toughest football player I've ever seen.

He's also perhaps the most creative back I've ever seen.

Unlike many players who bounce outside at the first opportunity, Mason isn't willing to concede the A and B gaps without a fight. A perfect example was a simple play during the second quarter last weekend, a designed run aimed at the gap between Dismukes and left guard Alex Kozan. The play didn't develop well, Mizzou created some penetration, but Mason simply scooted under Dismukes' block rather than force the issue outside.

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