ATLANTA — Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason want to prove that Auburn’s suspension of all-SEC running back Mike Dyer did not end the Tigers’ hopes of running the ball against Virginia in Saturday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Dyer has been Auburn’s lead back for two years. McCalebb, a junior, and Mason, a freshman, have been complements who use their speed on outside sweeps. Now the two are expected to share the carries against Virginia, and they say they hope to show they can fill Dyer’s role as on power runs between the tackles.
“I want to show every aspect of the game, running downhill, blocking and catching,” McCalebb said. “I want to show everybody I can do it all. I’m just waiting on the opportunity when the game comes.”
Coach Gene Chizik suspended Dyer following the regular season for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The suspension leaves big questions for Auburn’s offense.
Dyer ranked second in the Southeastern Conference with 1,242 yards rushing. He was Auburn’s workhorse with 242 carries and leader with 10 touchdowns.
“We have big shoes to fill for both those guys,” said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on Thursday. “I think they’re up for the challenge. Onterio and Tre are working hard. We’re going to be asking a lot of those guys.”
Malzahn said receiver Quan Bray “can get some reps, too” at running back.
Malzahn was named Arkansas State’s head coach on Dec. 14, and he has started to build his staff and recruit while preparing the offense for his last game with Auburn.
After announcing the suspension, Chizik said Dyer has a chance to return to the team next season. There has been little mention of Dyer this week, and his player profile was excluded from Auburn’s bowl media guide.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t been in contact with him,” McCalebb said. “I’ve just been concentrating on bowl practices and doing what I can to help the team win.”
Mason (5-10, 190) had only 19 carries for 97 yards this season.
“It was mostly speed sweeps at the beginning of the year,” Mason said. “I know when I’m running on sweeps I like to turn it up the field fast. I like running between the tackles also just to show I can be a speed guy or a regular running back and show how versatile I am.”
Most of Mason’s playing time came on special teams, including on kickoff returns. He didn’t have more than four carries in any game but said he’s “100 percent ready” for a prominent role on offense.
“I’m excited,” Mason said. “I just want to prove and show what I can do.”
Mason’s father, Vincent, is better known as D.J. Maseo from the hip hop group De La Soul. Mason said the group is touring.
“He’s excited for me, too,” Mason said. “He won’t be able to make the game but I’m pretty sure he’ll be watching.”
The bowl game could be an opportunity for Mason to prove he can be more than a change-of-pace back.
McCalebb already is established.
McCalebb (5-10, 170) split starts with Dyer and had 532 yards rushing with two touchdowns. He ran for 810 yards and nine touchdowns in Auburn’s 2010 national championship season.
“It’s not like we’re completely lost,” said quarterback Clint Moseley when asked about the running backs.
“Onterio, he’s definitely a veteran. He has a lot of experience. We trust in him a lot and he’s a good leader. That’s something that’s taken a lot of the pressure and the stress off of us and the coaches.”
McCalebb said he has tried to help prepare Mason for his opportunity.
“By him being a freshman, I tell him things every day and treat him like a little brother,” McCalebb said.
“I know he’s going to play a lot.”
Mason said he doesn’t expect Auburn’s offense to change without Dyer.
“I still think we’ll do our basic stuff, run between the tackles and everything,” Mason said. “I know neither of us is afraid to run between the tackles. We’re ready to do this.”
Georgia Dome’s field turf should help Mason and McCalebb take advantage of their speed.
“I love it,” Mason said. “It’s a great fit for our game because we’re both fast guys and this is a fast field. It helps us get there the fastest.”