AUBURN, Ala. — Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are still firmly planted atop the pecking order at running back.
Since fall camp began last week, Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said the senior duo have clearly separated themselves from the trio of competitors — redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and true freshmen Roc Thomas and Kamryn Pettway — attempting to supplant them.
"They've done everything and more to justify being the starter," Horton said Friday. "Right now at this point I don't want to get so caught up in who is going to run out there the first play or not. It's not that important."
Grant, a local product from Opelika, Ala., is the Tigers' leading returning rusher. He ran for 647 yards and six touchdowns on 66 carries last year. Even so, it appears Artis-Payne, who ran for 610 yards and six scores in 2013, may hold a slight edge at this point.
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And Horton believes a big season is in the offing for the Pennsylvania native.
"I think he's going to have a terrific season," the coach said, though he cautioned no one should start comparing him with Tre Mason, who set single-season school records for rushing yards (1,816) and rushing touchdowns (23) last year on his way to being named a Heisman Trophy finalist. "He has prepared very, very well throughout the summer and so far in fall camp. He's a better player today than he was last year at this time. He's quicker, he sees things better, he has a better understanding of the offense, he runs with a better pad level, he has better ball security. He has improved, which as a player is the most important thing."
Every bit as important is that both he and Grant have taken the younger trio under their wing.
"There's not a lot of animosity, not a lot of jealousy. There's a lot of encouragement and help from the old guys to the young guys. That's the way you want it to be," Horton said. " ... We're all in it for the same reason, and that's to win. I think our group understands that. If one of those freshmen can come to the front and help us, I think we're all for it."
Sure, one could say Horton has a problem on his hands in that he has too many players and too few carries to go around — but he'd say it's a good problem to have.
"I've been in certain years, certain situations you feel like I've got five or six running backs that are just elite and future pro football players and all that. The next thing you know, you blink your eye and you're down to one or two," he said. "With it being the most physical league in college football and for us being a run-football team, those guys are going to get hit. (It's important) for us to keep them healthy, but for us to have a quality depth is important as well."