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2014 NFL Draft: Q&A on Tre Mason

Who knows a prospect better than the college fan who watched him play for their team? Here's some inside info from WarRoomEagle from College and Magnolia, the SB Nation community for Auburn fans.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, Tre Mason was an incoming freshman at Auburn University. As part of a stacked RB class that included Devonta Freeman, Ka'Deem Carey, Bishop Sankey and Jeremy Hill (all of whom left the college ranks early for the NFL and were drafted before the end of the fourth round), Mason had plenty of suitors.

Ranked the 14th best RB by Rivals and 21st by Scouts, Inc., Mason had offers from major programs all over the country. In the end, the southeastern Floridian headed to Auburn as part of the same class as OL Greg Robinson, a class that at the time was very highly heralded. After a break out season in 2012, Mason used 2013 to help lead Auburn to the 2013 BCS National Championship...and promptly rushed for nearly 200 yards in the loss. He leaves Auburn with the single season rushing record for the Tigers...breaking Bo Jackson's previously held mark.

So to help sell me on Mason, I reconnected with WarRoomEagle from College & Magnolia, the SB Nation community for Auburn.

I was pretty critical on the TST Twitter account of the Rams' selection of Tre Mason in the third round. It's not that I don't think he has a skill set that can't fit in the NFL or that the Rams shouldn't have grabbed a RB in the 2014 NFL Draft. It's more that I think (a) there were other running backs that fit the Rams more profitably and (b) I think the average assessment of Mason's skills are inflated by the offenses he operated in and the talent in front of him. What would you say to naysayers like myself to convince us that Mason has a better than not chance to be a productive NFL back?

Before I say anything, let me remind the readers that I am not a scout and, when it comes to evaluating talent, the only thing worse than not being a scout is being a fan, which I am. With that in mind…

Tre Mason is the kind of back that keeps his team ahead of the chains. This ability to gain a healthy dose of yards on nearly every play helped Auburn complete late, go-ahead drives against Texas A&M, Alabama, and Florida State. No, he doesn’t run over people, nor is he a threat to reach the endzone from 60 yards out. Instead, he is decisive and quick to the hole his line creates. He may not break a tackle on every other play, but he always, always fall forward for that extra yard. In fact, out of 283 (pre-bowl game) rushes, he lost yardage only seven times and rushed for no gain only 17 times. Even when a defender gets through the line quickly, Mason can really limit the damage.

Mason had remarkable luck to avoid injuries throughout his three-year career at Auburn. In fact, he only missed one game, the Florida game his freshman year, and I’m not sure that was due to injury. Avoiding injury might be easier for guys that aren’t the feature back, but Mason stayed healthy while carrying the load at Auburn in 2013. (Mason was diagnosed with a wrist fracture after the season, but it did not affect his play and no one expects it to affect his future.) Except for two early games when the coaching staff was still trying to find the leader in the backfield, Mason never carried the ball fewer than 20 times against a major opponent, several times near 30 or more.

Some may say that the Rams should have drafted a back to complement Zac Stacy, not imitate him. While it’s nice to have a "power back" and a "speed back", unless they are both on the field at the same time, I’m not sure that there is a lot of benefit. Instead, Stacy and Mason could team up for the Rams like Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne did for the Tigers last year. After a few games of nearly even carries, Mason separated himself, but Artis-Payne was able to reliably spell him when needed or close out big wins. The best part was that the two backs were able to execute the same type plays, so the offense didn’t have to overly adjust for one player or the other.

As far as Mason’s skills being inflated by the scheme or talent around him, I point to his relative consistency from 2012 to 2013. Some may say that the misdirection and option aspects of Gus Malzahn’s offense give running backs a head start, and there is probably some truth to that, but Mason was also one of the few bright spots of the horrific 2012 season. Head coach Gene Chizik and first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler used a bland and uninspiring playbook that was not suited to any of the talent on the roster. The team went 3-9, there was no passing game to speak of, and by the end of the year, the players who were still trying could be counted on one hand. Tre Mason was one of those players. He managed to break 1000 yards in 12 games at a rate of 5.86 yards per carry, basically the same as his 2013 rate of 5.73 yards per carry.

Now he did have the advantage of running behind Greg Robinson and Jay Prosch (6th round draft pick), not to mention another possible future draftee or two. However, and not to get all S-E-C on you, but that conference led the way with 49 players drafted, 11 in the first round alone. The results were even more staggering last year. So, yes, Mason ran behind some talented players, but more often than not, the players on the other side of the ball were very talented, too. Not to mention, he will continue to run behind Robinson in St. Louis, which is pretty cool.

Mason had a pretty interesting career at Auburn. How would you characterize his career as a Tiger and how would you square his performances under the duality of former HC Gene Chizik and OC Scot Loeffler with current HC Gus Malzahn and OC Rhett Lashlee?

Mason’s career at Auburn certainly is interesting, largely because of how interesting the Auburn football program has been over the last three years. In 2011, Auburn was the defending national champion, and Tre Mason began his career as a freshman returning kickoffs. He wasn’t about to sniff playing time at running back with returning National Championship Offensive MVP Michael Dyer taking snaps.

The opening game, against Utah State, proved to be far too close for comfort. Auburn needed a touchdown, an onside kick recovery, and another touchdown in the last 2-plus minutes to avoid an upset for the ages. The team had lost so much senior leadership from the championship team, not to mention Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, that the Tigers needed points any way they could get them. Mason provided a kickoff return for a touchdown in his first game, but did little else.

The rest of the season was a rather forgettable one, for the team and Mason. When the team won, they squeaked by, but when they lost, they were blowouts. It was clear the team could not maintain playing at a championship level and went 7-5 in the regular season. Meanwhile, Mason mostly stuck to returning kickoffs, but never reached the endzone again.

A few weeks before Auburn’s appearance in the 2011 Chick-fil-A bowl, Michael Dyer was suspended for violation of team rules. Tre Mason got to split carries with speed back Onterio McCalebb against Virginia and he did quite well, rushing for 7.2 yards per carry and a touchdown. When it became apparent Dyer would no longer be on the team, fans were ready to see what Mason could do as the star of the show.

Unfortunately, Dyer was not the only person leaving the program. Gus Malzahn left his offensive coordinator position to become the head coach at Arkansas State and Gene Chizik replaced him with Scot Loeffler. This was his second year to be a coordinator but his claim to fame was coaching quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Chad Henne, and Tim Tebow. He brought a "pro-style" offense to replace Malzahn’s "spread-to-run" offense. Simply put, it did not work.

Mason was ready to be the feature back in 2012, but in addition to McCalebb, Mike Blakely, a transfer from Florida, was eligible to play as well. The first game was against Clemson in the Georgia Dome and the offense seemed out of sorts. Quarterback Keihl Frazier threw an early touchdown pass on a blown coverage but did little else. On the ground, Mason and McCalebb combined for 188 yards on 26 carries, but Auburn was forced to settle for field goals too often and Clemson won by seven.

In the next game, Blakely was given his shot, but the Tigers couldn’t run the ball at all against Mississippi State. Combined with five turnovers from the quarterback, Auburn didn’t have a shot and the season fell apart from there. It seemed that whenever Mason got hot, Loeffler would put Blakely in and vice versa. Frazier was replaced by Clint Moseley, but he was no better. All of this brought about a worrisome overtime win against Louisiana-Monroe, a close loss at Vanderbilt and embarrassing shutouts provided by rivals Georgia and Alabama.

By the end of the season, the players and the fans were ready for it to just be over. But when I try to find a bright spot from that year, I always think of Jonathan Wallace, the true freshman quarterback who gave it his all in the last 4 and a half games, and Tre Mason, who eclipsed 1000 yards on the last play of the Iron Bowl. Though the reins were never fully handed to him, Mason was clearly the best "every down" back on the team and as McCalebb’s and Blakely’s carries trailed off as the season continued, Mason made the most of that trainwreck of a season.

Gene Chizik was fired shortly after the Iron Bowl and Auburn brought Gus Malzahn back as head coach after being gone only a year. Malzahn hired an entirely new staff and let the players know that it was a "new day." The coaches told the players that they were not even watching film from 2012. Instead, each player would earn his place on the depth chart based on spring and fall practices. This included Tre Mason, who had to battle Cameron-Artis Payne and Corey Grant to be the starting running back. Corey Grant was a transfer from Alabama and was suited to play the "speed back" role, but Cameron-Artis Payne, a transfer from junior college, was the main competition. In fact, Artis-Payne earned MVP honors in the spring game.

When the 2013 season finally began, Mason and Artis-Payne shared snaps as Auburn simply used whichever back was having the better game. Mason started to show his leadership by the fourth game of the year, and by the sixth game, an eye-opening win at Texas A&M, the country knew that Auburn was back and the coaches knew that Tre Mason was their man.

Rams fans probably know most of the rest of the story. For the rest of the season, Mason was the workhorse back that gained yards in chunks, but rarely all at once. That’s part of the reason that his name wasn’t mentioned for many awards until his 304 yard game against Missouri in the SEC Championship game. Even Auburn fans didn’t fully appreciate what they were seeing until they noticed Mason’s name among the all-time greats for several season and career records.

Now that his collegiate career (and my history lesson) is over, it will be interesting to see how he is remembered by Auburn fans. He will surely be a favorite for being such a major part of the resuscitation last year and for having his name at or near the top of so many rushing records. But this fan will also think about what might have been if the team had more success in 2012. Fortunately for him, he was able to fit enough excitement into his last season to almost make up for it.

In the GRob questions, I asked about how his draft status helps the program. Does Tre Mason help extend the Auburn RB pipeline to the NFL? Since the turn of the millennium (I can't believe I said that), you guys sent five RBs to the league before the 4th round: Heath Evans (3rd round, 2001), Ronnie Brown (1st round, 2005), Cadillac Williams (1st round, 2005), Kenny Irons (2nd round, 2007) and Ben Tate (2nd round, 2010). A couple things.

First, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams were running backs from the same school both selected in the top five picks of the same draft. Sorry, that's not a question, that's more just me amazed that there was a time in which drafting two running backs in the top five from the same school didn't result in the immediate firing of certain peoples. Second, I didn't even include Rudi Johnson who, after being selected in the fourth round in 2001 by Cincinnati, had a better career than any of those other five I listed. So I guess my follow question is (and I know it took a while to get to the end of this) how do you deal with the discrepancy between the value of college RBs (which is very high) and the value of NFL RBs (which, understandably, is very low) as a college that is consistently producing some of the best of them?

Auburn has long considered itself Running Back U, and the list you provided is a big reason why. It shows that Auburn’s backs always have a shot at making it in the NFL. But of course the NFL is going to draft based on talent and potential, not school and position, and becoming a pipeline to the NFL is sort of self-perpetuating. It draws in more talented high school players who have successful careers in college before being draft-worthy prospects at the professional level, which then draws in more talented high school players and so on.

In fact, Auburn is on a tear in recruiting, especially at the running back position. Some of that has to do with scoring 39.5 points per game while rushing for 328 yards per game last year. Part of it has to do with the offense that is designed to get several people the ball in different ways all over the field. But part of it certainly has to do with the success Auburn running backs have had in the NFL. Roc Thomas signed with Auburn last February as the fifth highest rated running back in the country and Jovon Robinson, a JUCO player who may be the best running back in the country, verbally committed just last Thursday. Even with the loss of Artis-Payne and Corey Grant after next year, NFL fans should keep an eye on the Plains for talented ball-carriers.

I’m still not sure what to think of the running back value discrepancy between the college and professional game. It’s clear that the NFL sees most backs as easily replaceable cogs in their offenses, but if you think about it, every player in college must be replaced in a few years. Maybe it’s a difference between drafting/maintaining cap space and recruiting/maintaining a 85-man roster. In a draft and with a salary cap, teams may be willing to take only the 5th best back available later or cheaper if that means they can get a better player at a more valuable position. I’m not sure that applies to recruiting where teams just go get the best players possible, as long as there is sufficient depth at every position. Anyway, it is certainly something to keep an eye on in the near future. Will young football players do what Auburn’s own Ben Tate wishes he had done and switch from running back to safety?

I asked you about who Rams fans should be on the lookout for in 2014 in the GRob piece. Let's go one level deeper. Who do you think Auburn fans should be excited about breaking out this year. someone who's not even really on NFL fans' radars yet? Who's primed to make a huge leap up for Auburn football this year?

There is a lot of young talent on the defensive line. I mentioned senior Gabe Wright last time, but sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson could have a bigger impact. He had four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. Fellow sophomores on the defensive line Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams had nice seasons last year, too.

Kris Frost has shared the middle linebacker position for a couple years, showing the potential to be a great player, but never putting it all together on the field. In 2013, he should have the position to himself, and this Auburn fan is hoping he finally makes his name known to opposing offenses. But if he doesn’t, Tre Williams, possibly the best inside linebacker coming out of high school, will be ready to contribute early and often.

On offense, I mentioned Roc Thomas as a future feature running back, but a Tiger everyone can root for this year is Shon Coleman. You may recognize him as the leukemia survivor that announced the Rams’ second pick of the draft. Though he hasn’t officially locked down the spot, he is expected to replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. He was a five-star recruit out of high school who may be able to finally show his talent on the field

This is kind of an existential question, so no points lost for grammatical garbling. Hell, I think I set the bar pretty low with that first sentence. How do you the relationship to the NFL with college football fans, or at least college football-first fans? We're an NFL community, so give us a sense of how Auburn-first or Auburn-only fans canvas the NFL landscape. Would you expect a contingent of Auburn fans to become St. Louis Ram fans with the additions of Greg Robinson and Tre Mason? Does it always circle back to the program and recruiting? One of the things about the college/NFL relationship I find fascinating is that the college level often operates as a laboratory for innovation and strategic development with the NFL so slow to adapt to the lessons learned at the college level. Is there a sense at all that the NFL is just too staid and too worried about failure (which obviously and hilariously so often results in failure anyway) for college fans to enjoy the professional level?

Though many Auburn fans I know are Saints or Falcons fans, I personally don’t have an NFL team, so I’ll speak from that perspective. I have always just followed the stories of individuals I knew from their time playing college ball and rooted for them individually. Of course, the bigger names are more likely to make you root for the team as a whole. In Tennessee, where I have lived for the last six years, it seemed like there were as many Peyton Manning/Indianapolis Colts fans as there were Tennessee Titans fans, even though they are division rivals. And I certainly have a rooting interest in Carolina Panther games since Cam Newton became the quarterback there. I could definitely see something similar happening between Auburn fans and the St. Louis Rams. Maybe not as strong as it would be if a quarterback were taken, but two players in one year from one of Auburn’s most beloved teams helps. And who knows? There may be more on the way considering all the Ram-Tiger connections.

You say that the college game is like a laboratory for innovation or experimentation, but I like to think of it another way. I consider the NFL to be the laboratory or the clean room where football is played in ideal conditions with ideal players. College football is like the wilderness or a field study. It’s where ideas and concepts are born out of necessity and they either die and are never heard of again, or they succeed and spread throughout the sport. Of course it’s not a perfect analogy, but from that perspective, I enjoy both college and professional football. It’s just that the potential for chaos makes the college game more fun to me.

My sincerest thanks to WRE for putting in the obvious effort to not just answer these with the general platitudes I think we're all tired of.