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Grant solidifies spot in Auburn backfield

AUBURN, Ala. -- Junior running back Corey Grant knew he would have a role in Auburn’s offense this year, but even he was surprised with the amount of playing time he received in the season opener. He had as many carries Saturday night as he did all of last season. More importantly, he made the most of his chance on opening night.

Grant, a former Alabama transfer, led the team with 146 yards on just nine carries. He also scored on a 75-yard run midway through the second quarter.

“It was a great opportunity that coach gave me,” Grant said. “I just tried to take advantage of it and contribute to the team as much as I could.”

How about the coaches? Were they surprised with Grant’s breakout game?

“I'll be honest with you, no,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He's been real steady. We knew he could run. From spring even until now, I knew he could run, and he's a tough kid. He did make some cuts that were impressive that maybe we didn't know he could do. But his speed is definitely a weapon for him.”

In the season opener, Grant was the top rusher, but he wasn’t a one-man show. Starter Tre Mason finished with 73 yards and a touchdown while junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne added 52 yards on 10 carries.

The Tigers now have three quality running backs in a league that almost requires more than one feature back. Most SEC teams have at least two, if not three backs that can come in and carry the load if needed, and Auburn is no different.

And the Tigers could rely on any one of the three to takes charge and lead the team in rushing.

“I feel like all three of those guys bring something different to the table,” Lashlee said. “I could see it being a deal where week-to-week, maybe a different guy has the hot hand. I thought they all three did some really good things running the football.

“Moving forward, that helps us have a better feel how to use them, but there's no doubt it's a weapon having all three of them.”

Mason has the best combination of speed and power, and both were on display Saturday against Washington State. The power came on his first touchdown run where he scratched and clawed his way into the end zone. The speed showed up in the second quarter when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score.

The other two backs are more a little more specialized. Grant is the speed guy and likely the fastest of the three while Artis-Payne is the most physical runner of the group.

“In our offense, we try to ask guys to do what they are good at,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “To have three different types of backs gives us a lot of versatility. At times, you will see more of them on the field at the same time and stuff like that, but it gives us a lot of versatility.”

For Grant, he’s just happy to be a part of what some people are already calling ‘the three-headed monster’ in Auburn’s backfield. The nickname might not stick, but if the first game was any indication, Grant’s not going anywhere. He’s ready for week two.

“It's just whenever our number is called,” he said. “Coach has a different plan for each game and whenever our number is called, we're just going to carry the ball.”