Auburn's Tre Mason ready to make impact

For a team that played for a national championship a year ago, Auburn’s Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance Saturday night against Virginia might seem to leave a little to be desired for the Tigers.

So why can’t freshman running back Tre Mason wipe the smile off his face?

One man’s rebuilding year is another man’s opportunity. And for Auburn’s Mason, Saturday night brings the first bowl game of his career, the first game in a dome, and the first opportunity in an expanded role since Michael Dyer’s suspension.

Junior Onterio McCalebb is expected to start, but Mason is set to carry much of the load behind him.

Dyer was suspended indefinitely Dec. 11 for violating team rules, and since then Mason has all but counted the days until the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It’s been 20 since Auburn announced the suspension and Mason posted “My Time to Shine” on his Twitter feed.

“I’m 100 percent ready,” Mason said earlier this week, with the countdown down to three days. “I’m excited. I just want to prove and show what I can do.”

He gave his first glimpse in the season opener, when he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Utah State. But the promise of that play didn’t translate to much more. A couple of fumbles and a hamstring injury cost him the kick-return job. At running back, he has only 19 carries for 97 yards this season.

He and fellow speedster McCalebb were mostly seen as the complementary pieces, who would get their yardage on the edge. Dyer was the hard-nosed, between-the-tackles back, who led the Tigers — and was second in the SEC — with 1,242 yards rushing.

That’s something they have an opportunity to change against Virginia.

“When Mike was with us, he was the downhill-type runner, power back,” Auburn tight end, and Lassiter graduate, Philip Lutzenkirchen said. “You saw out of Onterio and Tre the jet motion-type runs, sweeps, screen passes. I think both guys are taking that personally, with a chip on their shoulder. They want to be that inside zone runner, downhill road runner.

“I’m sure you’ll see some of that. I can’t wait to see what they do on the field.”

Auburn coach Gene Chizik pointed out that the changes in the backfield have become somewhat of a rallying point for the entire team.

“The rest of our offense has embraced the fact that we’ve got to take it to another level to give these guys the opportunity to run the football,” Chizik said. “I think our offensive line feels that way, the tight ends, everybody involved in the offense.”

In three weeks of bowl practices, the Tigers have also added two or three other offensive skill players to the mix at running back. Chizik isn’t saying who, but wide receiver and punt returner Quan Bray is a possibility. The LaGrange native played running back last year at Troup High School.

Mason and McCalebb will get the bulk of the carries, though. McCalebb is the laid-back personality of the two, Mason a little more outgoing. He comes by it honestly, as the son of Vincent Mason, a member of the hip-hop trio De La Soul known as D.J. Maseo.

Mason knows his dad casts a wide shadow, which is why he works so hard to get around it.

“He always used to say don’t be like him, be better than him,” Mason said. “So that’s what I’m also going to tell my kids.”

His dad won’t be at the game because he’s touring overseas, but that’s all the more reason for Mason to make a splash. He knows his father will watch. He has something to prove to another family, too.

“It’s a great opportunity for a true freshman to be able to come into a game like this and have the chance to show his teammates, the Auburn family, he’s going to be a really good player down the road,” Chizik said. “I think that’s exciting for him.”