The Auburn senior leads the conference with 1,190 yards. In fact, he’s the only back to go over 1,000 yards this season, and his 221 yards against Texas A&M on Saturday were the most yards in one game by an SEC back all year.
And yet, as Saturday’s Auburn-Georgia matchup approaches, all anybody is talking about is Gurley’s return to the Bulldogs following a four-game suspension.
What’s it going to take for Artis-Payne to start getting some recognition?
“I don't get to listen to all the talk shows and all that, but he's just a workhorse guy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He's one of the top running backs in our league, and I think he's proved that time and time again. He's tough. He's very reliable. He's a very good pass protector. He's unselfish. He just does his job.”
Artis-Payne has already rushed for over 100 yards in seven of Auburn’s nine games this season, and he’s getting better every time out. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound back has rushed for 526 yards in his last three games, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He’s taken over the Tigers’ backfield, similar to how Tre Mason did a year ago.
“He’s running hard, determined,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I think he’s a very motivated individual. He’s making the most of his opportunity, and he’s been a big part of the reason we’ve been be able to be successful lately.”
But the thing about Artis-Payne is that he’s not a “me” guy. He works hard every day at practice; he spends tireless hours in the film room every week; and he'll be the first one to give credit to the offensive line for his own success. He doesn’t care about recognition. He cares about winning.
That’s why after Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, he didn’t want to talk about his performance or the fact that he was the first SEC back to go over 1,000 yards. He made it clear that none of that was relevant because his team lost the game.
“It’s fine to lead the SEC in rushing,” Artis-Payne said. “But you know, at the end of the day it’s about getting wins as a team. Individual success will come with that.”
“He doesn’t worry about all the accolades and all that,” added Lashlee. “I think he’s deserving of them. I don’t think there’s been a running back that’s meant more to his team or been any better than him this year. But he’s just not flashy. Sometimes guys that aren’t flashy don’t get as much notoriety, but he’s definitely performing at a high level.”
Normally, Artis-Payne would be a shoo-in to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City. The last five players to lead the SEC in rushing were invited, and three of those five went on to win college football’s most prestigious award.
Just last year, Mason made the trip. The former Auburn running back finished the season with 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns, but through the first nine games, he hadn’t reached 1,000 yards yet. He was 269 yards behind the current pace set by Artis-Payne this season.
But in spite of all that, Artis-Payne’s name hasn’t been mentioned in the same conversation with the Heisman Trophy. There’s been a bigger push for quarterback Nick Marshall.
“I don't know about all of that,” Artis-Payne said when asked about the Heisman. “A lot of people are having great seasons this year. I'm just trying to finish out strong.
“It would be nice, but I'm not really focused on that right now. We've still got games left, so being the leading rusher now doesn't count for anything.”
Following Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, it’s unlikely that either Artis-Payne or Marshall make it to New York City, but there’s still hope for this Auburn team. The Tigers can still win the SEC West, and with that could come a spot in the College Football Playoff.
First, though, they have to win Saturday at Georgia.
"The fact that we’ve got Georgia, one of our rivals, this week – it’s been a little easier to put that [loss] behind us,” Malzahn said. "Our guys know that we have to play well, and we still have a whole lot to play for."
It's a game where everybody will be watching Gurley, but Artis-Payne will look to do what he’s done all season. And it's OK if nobody notices.