AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn coaches kept checking on the sidelines: How is Tre?
Carry after carry, touchdown after touchdown, Tre Mason tirelessly demonstrated in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Missouri that he could handle the load for the second-ranked Tigers.
“Tre had that look on his face,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “In between series, I’d go ask him, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘Coach, keep giving it to me. We’re going to win the SEC championship.’ He had that look in his eyes. We weren’t going to take him out unless he took himself out.”
Mason delivered as promised. The junior tailback carried Auburn (12-1) to a national title shot against Florida State with 46 rushes, 304 yards, four touchdowns and two Heisman poses.
He also earned himself a trip to New York as one of six Heisman Trophy finalists, joining tailback Andre Williams (Boston College) and quarterbacks Jameis Winston (Florida State), AJ McCarron (Alabama, Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M).
That marathon performance in the Georgia Dome came a week after the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Mason ran 29 times for 164 yards against Alabama’s normally unyielding defense. Delivering on those huge stages carried into the national spotlight a tailback often overshadowed in the SEC by players like Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon.
“He’s one of the best players in college football, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said.
But Mason had largely floated under the national radar, and was only a preseason second-team All-SEC pick. A week earlier, Malzahn said quarterback Nick Marshall “should be in the mix” for the Heisman. Mason vaulted past his teammate.
Twice a 1,000-yard rusher, he became an overnight sensation.
Bo Jackson, Auburn’s 1985 Heisman winner, gave him high praise after the performance.
“He was like, ‘You’re probably one of the best players to ever put on an Auburn helmet,’” Mason said. “He just was thanking me for being here. I was thanking him for being a mentor to me.”
Mason is chasing down Jackson’s records. His 1,621 rushing yards, sixth-best nationally, are 165 yards behind Jackson’s record set during the Heisman season. His 22 rushing touchdowns are one behind the SEC record set by Florida’s Tim Tebow en route to the 2007 Heisman.
Mason, who also returns kicks, has already set the school mark with 2,137 all-purpose yards for the nation’s top rushing team.
“I don’t want to say I expected it, but I’ve worked toward it,” said Mason, who is considering skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft. “There’s a lot of goals and dreams that I have. I remember saying my goal at the beginning of the season was 1,500 yards. And people said, Oh, that’s too much. Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. I’ve surpassed that and I’m looking forward to keep going.”
He learned the mind-set of aiming high from his parents, Tina and Vincent Mason. Vincent Mason is a member of the hip hop group De La Soul, but Mason remembers living in New York with his grandmother before his father’s music career took off.
“My dad being who he is also made me more hungry, because he started from the bottom,” Mason said. “He’s come from nothing and he’s worked his way up. He doesn’t give us everything (on) a silver spoon. He makes us work for everything we have to make us as hungry as he was.”
He demurs when asked if he’s now the most famous person in his family.
“Nah, my dad has a lot more experience than me,” Mason said. “He’s a legend.”
Mason wasn’t even in the Heisman conversation until the final two games. He ran for 1,002 yards as a sophomore, but split carries with Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne – not to mention 1,000-yard rusher Marshall – early in the season.
Three games in, he had 206 yards and two touchdowns.
Mason, who also scored on a 100-yard kickoff return in the opener against Washington State, has picked good times to shine. In four games against Top 10 teams, Mason has averaged 194.5 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
He’s embracing his newfound acclaim nationally.
“It’s a whole lot of fun,” said Mason, who was named SEC offensive player of the year. “Just playing the game that I love and just getting rewarded for it, it can’t get any better than that.”