Following breakthrough seasons, Tre Mason, Greg Robinson face different questions
Running back Tre Mason had been up on Podium C inside Lucas Oil Stadium's media workroom for several minutes -- five, maybe 10; time blends together at the combine -- before anyone managed to ask him about his former Auburn teammate, offensive tackle Greg Robinson. As Mason turned to answer, the set of televisions hanging from the ceiling caught his eye. There, in a bit of timing so serendipitous it bordered on looking staged, the NFL Network had started rolling highlights from Robinson's combine workout.
Mason paused to watch for a second. One more time, Robinson was out in front of him.
The 2013 SEC Offensive Player of the Year was quite familiar with the sight. Not every one of Mason's 317 carries, nor all of his 1,816 yards came running behind the hulking Robinson. It only felt that way.
"He demolished people," Mason said. "He just straight manhandled [defenders]. As soon as the ball was hiked, he was five yards down the field with a guy in his hands."
Auburn's run to the national title game occurred hand-in-hand with the somewhat unexpected rises of Mason and Robinson. No player in this draft class, save for possibly UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, ascended the ranks with the ferocity Robinson did. Over the course of a few short months, he exploded from a 2015 prospect to watch into a likely top-five selection.
Mason reaped many of the benefits of Robinson's dominating 2013 season, all the while grabbing a stranglehold on what looked like it might be a running back-by-committee situation at Auburn. He averaged 13 carries for 68.7 yards while scoring two touchdowns over the Tigers' first three games; he rushed for 1,610 yards and 21 touchdowns -- including a 46-carry, 304-yard, four-TD showing in the SEC title game -- over the remainder of the schedule.
"I feel like I'm the best running back in this draft class because I broke Bo Jackson's rushing record in the season," said Mason, who narrowly topped Jackson's 1,786-yard showing from 1985. "If he was considered one of the best to do it and I broke his [record], then I feel like I should be the No. 1 running back in this draft."
Perhaps that argument cuts to the heart of the questions surrounding both Mason and Robinson.
The Tigers ran the ball an average of 52 times a game in 2013, with QB Nick Marshall ranking second behind Mason at 172 carries. Mainly with Marshall at the helm, though, Auburn attempted a mere 20.4 passes (and completed just 12.4) per game.
For Robinson, Auburn's obsessive commitment to the run game has left scouts wondering how advanced his pass-protection abilities are. And Mason had all of 12 receptions last season with limited blocking responsibilities. So teams will wonder whether his skills are translatable to the NFL level or if the 2013 Heisman finalist was merely a product of a special offensive system -- one that featured Robinson grinding defenders into the dirt.
"We didn't do a whole ton of pass-blocking but we did enough," Mason said, "and I feel like the tape will explain and display a lot of those things."
Said Robinson : "I understand about the run blocking because I worked on a lot. I’ve also worked the pass [but] it was limited. I feel I’m decent enough, and I will prove myself if there’s anybody doubting that I [can] pass block."
Odd as it may seem, those concerns may weigh more heavily on Mason's stock among the running backs than it will on Robinson's standing at tackle. Much of that has to do with how teams view the two positions these days: three OTs were drafted in the top four selections last year, while nary a running back came off the board until Round 2. Robinson, at 6-foot-2 and 332 pounds with excellent showings in the 40-yard dash and bench press at the combine, has that ideal combination of talent and potential to entice teams at a premium position.
Mason certainly can vouch for his former teammate's impact.
"Since freshman year, I knew Greg was going to be something special," Mason said. "He was around that size freshman year coming in. He just tightened it up a little bit. I knew he was going to be something special."
A former four-star recruit, Mason arrived at Auburn with high hopes of his own. He spent his initial season mainly returning kicks (24 attempts for a 26.4-yard average) and carrying the ball in specially-designed packages. It did not take him long to progress from that role into a go-to weapon.
"Our staff is extremely proud of him," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after Mason announced he would turn pro. "I recruited Tre, and one of his goals was to get to the NFL, so I'm very proud of him reaching that. He did a wonderful job for us, not only this year, but his whole career."
Scouts view Robinson's 2013 season as the beginning of something very special. Will they see Mason's breakthrough in the same manner?
"I've been doubted all my career," Mason said. "I just love to prove people wrong.
"I'm not sure what I have to prove. I have to believe that numbers don't lie. I feel like I put up a lot of numbers this year and it should be able to speak for itself." Maybe it will. But it definitely says something about what Robinson and the Auburn offensive line pulled off in front of Mason all year long.