Three games into what would be his Heisman Trophy finalist season at Auburn in 2013, Tre Mason was ... just fine. Good even. He was averaging seven yards per carry, but in limited work in the Tigers' 3-0 start that included two narrow victories.
Mason was splitting carries with teammates Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne almost evenly, and Grant actually was overall the most productive of the three. Along with running quaterback Nick Marshall, touches were at a premium in the Tigers' crowded backfield.
The junior Mason, however, was undaunted. He made a decision: He was going to force the coaches' hands to get him more opportunities.
"I decided after the third game of the season, it was time for me to be more consistent," Mason told Shutdown Corner by phone. "There was no other choice. I was good, but I had to be better."
The coaches, as it turned out, had no choice either. From the fourth game on, Mason took over and seemingly got better by the week. Even though Auburn lost that fourth game to LSU, Mason ran 26 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns that afternoon. He had established himself as the team's unquestioned workhorse in Gus Malzahn's run-based, turbo-speed offense.
Over that next eight-game span including the LSU game, Mason's consistency was on display — he totaled betwen 60 rushing yards (in a 10-carry blowout game against Florida Atlantic) and 168 yards at Arkansas, scoring in each of those eight games. He also had at least 107 yards from scrimmage in seven out of those eight contests.
"My whole thing is consistency," Mason said from the NFLPA Rookie Premiere Weekend. "Once I do it one game, why not do it the next? My big thing was proving I could get it done every game. I didn't want any bad games on my track record. So I tried to show up every single game. It's not just, 'Oh, he showed up one game.'"
But his best work was yet to come. In the final trio against rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl, against Missouri in the SEC title game and against Florida State in the national championship game, the future St. Louis Rams third-round pick went nuclear. Mason ran 109 times for 662 yards with six touchdowns, and added a 42-yard touchdown reception against FSU. His 37-yard rushing touchdown with 1:19 against the Seminoles appeared to be the game winner until FSU mounted a final-minute drive to steal the Waterford crystal football from the Tigers' clutches.
Don't blame Mason, who was outstanding with two scores and 237 yards on 35 touches. And it's hard to believe, but that was his second-best game. The game prior, against Missouri, Mason kicked his Heisman campaign into late overdrive with a ridiculous performance that spoke to his remarkable stamina: 46 rushes, 304 yards and four back-breaking touchdowns against the other Tigers.
"See, that's why I think size is overrated. It's not really a factor anymore when it comes to playing football," said the 5-9, 205-pound Mason, who packed on 329 touches in 14 games last season. He credits his work with Florida-based trainer Tony Villani at XPE, who worked with Mason during the pre-draft process, for adding even more endurance heading into his rookie season.
"My training and my work ethic, every little thing I do, helps keep me ahead of the competition. In the fourth quarter, I still feel fresh every game. Some people like to quit then, but that's when I am feeling my best. I strive for that feeling every game because that's when my team needs me the most."
Now Rams fans — some of whom hated Mason for his thrashing of the in-state college team in December — are coming to love their new back. He has a message for his new team's fans: "Sorry, I had to do it," he said with a laugh. "But now they know what they are getting with me."
Many figure Mason will split carries in some form with returning starter Zac Stacy. But Mason is taking the approach that he's going to pursue the starting job as if it's his to lose.
"I only assume that I am going to get the chance to start," he said. "That's how I am looking at it. If the coaches want us both to run the ball, then we are both going to run it as much as we can, as hard as we can. Otherwise, one of us is going to get [the ball] more than the other."
Mason comes to St. Louis with the perfect chaperone: No. 2 overall pick and Auburn teammate Greg Robinson, who figures to be an immediate starter at guard. Robinson arrives in the NFL with the reputation of being one of the best run-blocking linemen to emerge from the college ranks in several years. Mason can't be happier about taking the next step together.
"That's my guy," Mason said. "We've been through it together. We know what we're both capable of, and I think people will be very excited with what we can accomplish. No one will outwork us."
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher got to know Mason and Robinson up close because Fisher's son, Trent, had played at Auburn the past few seasons before transferring a few months ago. Fisher stood on the sidelines for many games and watched Robinson and Mason. But Mason said he was observing, too.
"I feel like I am [getting] a players' coach," Mason said. "We'd see him on the sidelines of our games a lot of times, and he was not just talking to Trent. He was watching everything that was going on. He'd be there in the offseason, too. Just talking to people about him, you got the idea that he would be an amazing coach to play for."
Mason had a little time to kill during the three-day Rookie Premiere event, which featured dozens of the top 2014 draft picks at various public appearances and charitable events in the Los Angeles area, and was getting a bit anxious. While waiting to be picked up for one event this weekend, Mason said he got in a quick mile run on the treadmill.
"I was getting antsy," he said. "I needed something."
And back he'll go after this weekend, working with Villani and getting ready for the remainder of the Rams' OTAs and minicamps prior to training camp, where the real work begins. Mason doesn't know what all the coaches have in mind for him, work-wise, but whatever the role, he'll be ready.
"First quarter, fourth quarter, all four quarters, whatever it is, you name it, I am ready," he said.
- - - - - - -