AUBURN, Ala. — It’s easy to tell Corey Grant is trying to keep his emotions in check this week.
He is set to appear in Saturday's marquee game, after all, as No. 4 Auburn and top-ranked Alabama square off in the first Iron Bowl featuring a pair of top four squads. As massive as the matchup is, with myriad conference and national title ramifications riding on the outcome, it’s even more important to Grant. Auburn’s junior running back holds an interesting distinction: He’s suited up for both teams during his college career.
Of course, that’s in more of a figurative sense when it comes to the Crimson Tide. He redshirted during his only season with Alabama in 2010. Once that year ended, the Opelika, Ala., native transferred closer to home to become a Tiger, sitting out yet another year in 2011 due to the NCAA’s transfer rules.
So what are his feelings heading into Saturday?
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“It's a personal game,” he said before reversing course. “It's a big game, but I'm going to treat it like any other game.”
Believe it or not, Grant said he hasn’t been counting down the days to this year's Iron Bowl and the chance to redeem himself against his former team.
Rhett Lashlee trusted Grant’s words. Besides, Auburn’s offensive coordinator didn’t think Grant — or anyone else involved in this rivalry, for that matter — should have to express how much this game means.
It should go without saying.
“I’m sure it'll be pretty important to him,” Lashlee said of the Opelika, Ala., native, “but if you've got to find an incentive for a game like this, especially if you're from this state, you know, maybe you've got some issues."
On the field, Grant hasn’t had any problems.
It is he, not Nick Marshall or Tre Mason, who leads the team in yards per carry, gaining 9.9 yards each time he touches the ball. In sum, Grant has 557 rushing yards and five touchdowns this season.
Along with receiver Ricardo Louis, Grant has found great success on speed sweeps, which take advantage of his top-level speed once he gets to the perimeter.
The junior running back said making those plays count are an integral part of the offense, since it takes pressure off Marshall and Mason.
“(We) try not to rely on those guys and put a lot of pressure on them to force them, in their mind, (to) think they have to make this play,” he said. “They know they have other guys around them that can do just as good as they can.”
Mason appreciated the sentiment.
And the junior running back noted it’s been easy to detect the change in Grant’s demeanor as soon as Sunday arrived.
“He came in pretty fired up and ready to go,” Mason said. “He feels like this (was) the right move for him.”
Not that it was an easy decision. After redshirting in 2010, Grant assumed he would play a larger role with the Crimson Tide’s offense the following season. That spring, however, Alabama moved him to cornerback.
At that point, Grant knew it was time to assess his options.
“Things I was getting recruited for, I wasn't really doing,” he said. “I figured around that time maybe I need to get into a spread offense.”
Spending two straight years on the sideline — and two straight years at the bottom of the depth chart — was difficult, he admitted.
But thanks to his teammates, the transition was seamless.
“Everybody welcomed me back,” he said. “It was like I had been here the whole time, and being recruited I knew a lot of the guys already on the team, so it wasn't a bad experience.”
There are still a few Crimson Tide players Grant said he keeps in touch with, naming linebacker C.J. Mosley, tight end Brian Vogler and safety Jarrick Williams.
Saturday, however, Grant knows he’s exactly where he needs to be — playing for the right coach and the right team.
“This was what I came back (to Auburn) for,” he said. “ For (Gus Malzahn) to come back has just (been) perfect.