AUBURN, Ala. — It took until the game ended for Corey Grant to finally realize what he had just accomplished on the field last Saturday.
He had just finished off a tour de force performance, running for a game-high 146 yards on nine carries against Washington State. It was the type of game Auburn’s junior running back admitted once doubting he could achieve.
Who’s to blame him?
His circuitous, frustrating path to Saturday would do little to boost anyone’s confidence. His Opelika, Ala., upbringing wasn't able to keep him rooted around Auburn following his prep career, as he committed to arch-rival Alabama in the summer of 2009.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I loved (then-Auburn offensive coordinator) Coach (Gus) Malzahn and his offense.”
It was a decision he would come to regret. Yes, part of the reason he committed to the Crimson Tide was because the team promised to take advantage of his skill set, predicated on the blazing speed that made a two-time state champion in the 100-meter dash and a one-time state winner in the 200 meters.
But the other factor had nothing to do with football: He simply wanted to get away from home.
“So I did that,” he said. “Then I realized that it really wasn't for me.”
He spent one season with Alabama, taking a redshirt in 2010 before transferring to Auburn. Once he joined the Tigers, however, he had to sit out yet another season to satisfy the NCAA’s rules on transfers.
In 2012, he finally saw the field, though it was solely in mop-up duty.
That’s why Saturday meant so much to him.
“Everybody always says hard work pays off,” he said. “I see that it does.”
Grant flashed the speed that made him a high school track star in the second quarter, taking a handoff around the left side and racing untouched for a 75-yard score. Nearly three years had passed since his last touchdown — which, he recalled, came when he was still an Opelika Bulldog — and he was ready to revel in the moment. It was a celebration deferred, as the play was reviewed to make sure he didn’t step out of bounds. Grant didn’t have to worry, as the touchdown stood.
Let the pandemonium begin.
“It was exciting,” he said. “My teammates know what I've been through. For me to do that and for us to do that together, it was an exciting moment.”
Left tackle Greg Robinson couldn’t contain his excitement, either.
“Really, when he broke off to the sideline I was cheering him on,” he said. “They all knocked him down in the end zone, but he felt good about it and it's good for the hard work to pay off.”
Malzahn was also pleased Grant showed his stuff against Washington State. Not that it came as any surprise to him.
“I was here before, and I knew what he could do,” Malzahn said. “But he wasn't eligible that year. You saw him on the scout team. He's got a chance to really help us (this season).”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee echoed Malzahn’s thoughts. The coaching staff had seen everything he could during spring practice, which carried over into fall camp. One aspect of Grant’s game revealed itself Saturday that even Lashlee didn’t see coming.
“He (made) some cuts that were impressive that maybe we didn't know he could do,” Lashlee said. “His speed is definitely a weapon for him. As you were able to see on Saturday, he helps us have a potential one-play drive or a guy who can make those explosive plays and flip the field and help you get chunks (of) yardage.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Grant’s explosiveness?
He hasn’t lost his lightning quickness despite putting on 30 pounds of muscle since high school.
“I actually feel a little bit faster,” he said, noting the last time he ran the 40 he was unofficially timed at 4.29 seconds. “Working with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Ryan) Russell, he knows what he's doing and he helps us a lot with our speed – (especially) maintaining your speed as you get bigger.”
The added strength will be an asset when he has to face off against some of formidable defenses the SEC has to offer as the season progresses. He shied away from any talk of being “an SEC-type running back” just yet. It’s only been one game, after all.
Those are the types of designations that only come with time, and only on the basis of multiple games like he put together Saturday.
“Hopefully I can prove that later in the season,” he said.