AUBURN, Ala. — A few years ago, Cameron Artis-Payne was out of football and just hoping some school would give him a shot.

Now, going into Saturday’s game with Texas A&M, No. 3 Auburn’s tailback is the Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher, spending extra hours studying film and even relishing the bruising thuds of contact in this hard-hitting league.

Cameron Artis-Payne
Auburn | RB | Sr.

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“You only get to play football for a certain amount of years, you’ve got to enjoy everything that comes with it,” Artis-Payne said. “It’s definitely fun.”

To understand that philosophy requires a peek at where he came from as a forgotten player with no college prospects.

Artis-Payne, who once dreamed of playing college hoops not football, spent a year at a New York prep school after his grades caused basketball coaches to shy away. A limited football resume also didn’t help his case as a running back.

Then came two years out of the game living at home while trying to stay in shape and waiting, hoping for a college coach to come calling. He wound up joining another player from his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at Allan Hancock College in California.

Two prolific years later, Auburn led a pack of major colleges seeking his services, including most of the Pacific-12 Conference teams. He wanted to play in the SEC, where only the Tigers offered him a scholarship.

Artis-Payne, who played behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason last season, now has run for a league-high 974 yards and is coming off two big games against SEC defenses. He has gained 310 yards in the past two games against No. 12 Mississippi and South Carolina.

It’s the most rushing yards through the first eight games of a season for an Auburn player since quarterback Cam Newton ran for 1,077 en route to the 2010 Heisman.

“He’s one of the top running backs in our league,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think he’s proved that time and time again. He’s tough and very reliable. He’s a very good pass protector. He’s unselfish and he does his job.”

“You only get to play football for a certain amount of years, you’ve got to enjoy everything that comes with it.
— Cameron Artis-Payne

Artis-Payne is still largely overshadowed by SEC runners like Georgia’s suspended Todd Gurley, Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Arkansas’ Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Right now, though, he’s the lead runner statistically.

Artis-Payne said attention isn’t the goal, anyway. Forget the SEC, he’s spent little time as the No. 1 guy on his own team. Artis-Payne backed up the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy for much of his high school career at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg and played behind Mason, now with the St. Louis Rams, in 2013.

“After a certain point, you get used to it,” Artis-Payne said. “I’ve never been the celebrated guy or the top dog or anything like that. So that’s always driven me since a young age. It’s nothing new for me.”

Style also has something to do with it. The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder doesn’t dazzle with long runs and is more reliable stock horse than sleek thoroughbred. In fact, his longest run of the season is 37 yards.

Thriving in Malzahn’s offense that features quarterback Nick Marshall as a runner and passer, Artis-Payne has often gotten stronger as the game goes on. He ran 19 times for 96 yards in the second half against the Rebels.

“We knew at the beginning of the year that we thought he’d be a 1,000-yard back in this league,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “We really did. We didn’t know to what level and there’s still some of that that remains to be seen, but what he’s done is that he just has great determination.

“He has a drive in him, a very quiet strength of drive that he’s going to be successful. He’s very driven to prove himself and he doesn’t have to say anything to anybody about it.”