AUBURN, Ala. — Corey Grant has a strange relationship with being labeled as a speedster.
On one hand, the rising senior running back embraces it.
“I like that,” he said. “It’s kind of to my advantage. speed is a little bit more of me than power, but I accept that role and like that role.”
At the same time, he has to reconcile that identity with another goal: Proving he’s durable enough to be the Tigers’ primary running back.
“That’s one thing I do want to do — establish myself,” said Grant, who ran for 647 yards and six touchdowns last season. “Because you know, it’s a question if I can run between the tackles, I want to get that established throughout spring and going into the fall, letting everybody know I can do that.”
A two-time 100-meter champion during his time at Opelika High School, Grant has often been compared with one of his predecessors in Auburn’s backfield: Onterio McCalebb, also noted for his blazing quickness. Aside from their speed, both stand 5-foot-11. But that’s where the similarities end, as Grant has 30 pounds (203 to 173) on McCalebb.
Grant used last season to prove he could finish runs — routinely picking up yards after contact — and according to teammates, that hasn’t changed this spring. "I think he’s definitely stronger and tougher than anybody gives him credit for," said Alex Kozan, the Tigers’ starting left guard. "Pound-for-pound, I’d say he’s probably the strongest guy on our team. I don’t think anybody really realizes that, but Corey’s a freak athlete. A lot of those speed guys, they’re not really tough, but Corey’s one of the toughest.”
Cameron Artis-Payne, Grant’s chief competition this spring, concurred.
“Corey has been doing good as far as toughness,” he said. “Everybody has to work on different things, but Corey has been doing good this spring. He has been making some plays out there. Toughness-wise he has been doing good, too.”
Ultimately, the player who starts the season opener against Arkansas may be the running back who develops the best rapport with Nick Marshall. Last year, the quarterback combined with Tre Mason to form a lethal 1-2 punch in the backfield, which turned Auburn into the top rushing attack in the country at 328.3 yards per game. Grant is doing his best to form that bond with Marshall this spring.
But as he pointed out, it didn’t take hold with Mason immediately, either.
“I think later on in the season they got the hang of each other and how each other played, and it worked out to benefit both of them,” Grant said. “I want to get that relationship with Nick if I’m in that role throughout the season, which I expect to be, so I think that’s very important.”
If nothing else, things are far easier for Grant and the rest of the offense than last year at this time.
“It kind of feels a little bit better coming around because last year it was actually a little harder, because with Coach (Gus) Malzahn coming back we had to adjust to the offense and learn the offense,” he said. “But now at this point, you kind of know the offense and you’re more comfortable, so I’m just trying to sit back and make plays every day.”
It doesn’t take much for that to occur, Kozan said. All the Tigers have to do is get it to Grant when’s he on the perimeter.
“The thing about Corey is that he has good vision and that allows him to get out in space, and once he’s in space, he’s gone a lot of times,” Kozan said. “It allows him to use his speed. And once he’s in space, the rest takes care of itself.”
Being able to run the ball effectively is just one aspect the coaching staff will look at before it names a starter, though.
“Anytime you get out there and go scrimmage and you’re playing live you can see protections and all the little things without the ball that we ask our running backs to do,” Malzahn said. “That is very critical.”
With the competition set to stretch into fall camp — when freshmen Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway will join the fray — Grant is keeping his focus solely on the spring. Nothing is more important to him than Saturday’s A-Day game.
Reflecting on his career to this point, he lamented how he’d only taken part in one spring game before.
In 2010, he redshirted at Alabama. A year later, he was at Auburn, but had to sit out due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. He finally got his shot in 2012, scoring one of the Tigers’ two touchdowns on the ground. Last year, he was sidelined once more, as he came down with the flu prior to the spring game. He hasn’t forgotten.
“Every day I think about that — trying not to get sick, just (avoiding) things that will keep me out,” he said.
So let others downplay Saturday’s importance.
Grant won’t be among them.
"It's a big deal,” he said. " So I'm looking forward to it."