Roll Tide/War Eagle: Meet Corey Grant, a Man Who Has Played for Alabama & Auburn

Justin Lee@@byjustinleeContributor INovember 28, 2013

USA Today

Corey Grant fielded the kick at the 10-yard line.

His Auburn Tigers led Tennessee, 34-20, coming out of the halftime break on Nov. 9. With the ball in his hands, Grant saw an opportunity to put the Volunteers away—and to continue to prove that he is one of the most electric players in the Southeastern Conference.

"Taken by Grant at the 10," Auburn radio announcer Rod Bramblett said as he called the action. "15—20—He cuts it back across the field..."

Grant edged his way across the turf. He made a defender miss at the 25. He angled toward the sideline, before finding a blocker and the corner as he approached the 50-yard line.

"He's at the 50," Bramblett's voice rose. "Near sideline, to the 30..."

Grant left everyone in his dust.

"Tail lights!" Bramblett exclaimed.

That play put the game out of reach for Tennessee—and that call has followed Grant everywhere since that day.

To Tigers fans, Grant is now known simply as "Tail Lights"—an endearing nickname for one of Auburn's most beloved players.

Grant is a hometown hero on the Plains. He's from Auburn's neighboring city, Opelika, and he's a former Opelika High Bulldog. He became a 4-star prospect after his heroics on the high school gridiron, and he was a three-time state champion in track.

Corey Grant practices at Alabama during his lone season with the Crimson Tide in 2010.
Corey Grant practices at Alabama during his lone season with the Crimson Tide in 2010.T.G. Paschal /

He's also a former member of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

And this Saturday, after a four-year journey that took Grant inside both locker rooms on either sideand saw him be overlooked, misused and forgotten time and againGrant is finally set to see significant playing time in the Iron Bowl, and make his own mark on the biggest game in the state.

"It's a personal game," Grant said Tuesday. "It's a big game. But I'm going to treat it like any other game."

Having grown up just outside of Auburn, Grant knows just how much the Iron Bowl means to the Auburn faithful and to the community.

Having spent a year in the Alabama locker room, he knows just how important it is to the Crimson Tide, too.

"It's very important to them," Grant said. "It's a very tough game to them. They look at it as their No. 1 game of the year. It's going to be treated by them like they were playing in the national championship."

For the redshirt junior running back, Saturday could not come soon enough, after Grant watched idly from the sidelines during each of the last three Iron Bowls.

Having sat out and redshirted his freshman season at Alabama, buried on the depth chart behind Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Grant decided to leave Alabama the following spring, and return home to East Alabama to walk on at Auburn.

In 2011, Grant sat out yet another year due to NCAA transfer rules, and last season, during Auburn's 3-9 campaign, Grant barely saw the field as former head coach Gene Chizik and former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler left his talent on the sideline while fielding one of the most inept offenses in recent school history.

While Grant's ability may have been overlooked in the past by Chizik—and Alabama head coach Nick Saban—Grant's burning speed hasn't been lost on new Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn.

This season, Grant has rushed for 557 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 9.95 yards per carry. 

AUBURN, AL - AUGUST 31:  Running back Corey Grant #20 of the Auburn Tigers runs the ball in for a touchdown during the first half of play on August 31, 2013 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. At halftime Auburn leads Washington State 25-21.  (Phot
Michael Chang/Getty Images

"He's probably one of the fastest players in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten better at running between the tackles and doing the things a normal running back does. He's an even better person."

Now, Grant is an integral piece of Auburn's four-headed rushing attack, alongside fellow running backs Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, and quarterback Nick Marshall. The Tigers are rushing for 320.27 yards per game—an average good enough for second-best nationally.

"When he first got here, he didn't get much playing time," Mason said. "As you can see this year, things are clicking for him. He gets around that edge, it's hard to stop him. He's got elite speed. I'm ready to see him play against (Alabama)."

No player on either side will have worked as hard to play in this particular game as Grant on Saturday.

After Grant watched from the sidelines while Cam Newton led the Tigers to a come-from-behind victory in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2010, it seemed doubtful that he may ever get his chance to play in an Iron Bowl.

"It was really just spring ball after (the coaching staff) tried me at corner," Grant said of his departure from Alabama. "The things I was getting recruited for I really wasn't doing. I figured around that time maybe I should get in a spread offense."

As fate would have it, Malzahn had that spread offense for him at Auburn, where he was then the Tigers offensive coordinator—and the region was ready to welcome him back with open arms.

"Coming back, it was kind of exciting," Grant said. "Everybody welcomed me back. It was like I had been here the whole time. Being recruited (by Auburn) I knew a lot of the guys already on the team, so it wasn't a bad experience at all."

But Grant's return home wasn't a fairy-tale ending, as he'd have to work to earn another scholarship after walking on with the Tigers following that lost 2011 season.

"The big thing was that he was going to have to walk on," said Brian Blackmon, Grant's former high school coach at Opelika High. "He was going to have to sit out a year because of transfer rules. That was going to be a tough situation for him. I guess the good thing about it was, if he was going to walk on here, he had his family support system here. Being from here, he was able to go home and be at home while he was going through that process."

Nov 16, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Corey Grant (20) avoids Georgia Bulldogs defenders and scores a touchdown during the first half at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Then, just as Grant was set to play again, he hit another wall of adversity. Malzahn left Auburn, to take the head-coaching job at Arkansas State.

Chizik hired Loeffler to run an under-center, pro-style offense. In Loeffler's system, Grant was only given nine carries in all of 2012.

But Grant stayed focus, and in late December of last year, everything came full circle when the university announced that Malzahn would be returning to replace Chizik as the Tigers' new head coach.

"It was a great feeling once they announced that and it was set in stone that Coach (Malzahn) was coming back," Grant said. "That excited me, because that was what I came back for. For him to be coming back, it was just perfect."

Now—finally—Grant is set to take significant snaps in the biggest game in the state and make his mark on the Iron Bowl.

"I think it's something that every kid that plays football in the state of Alabama dreams of, being able to play in that game—whichever side," Blackmon said. "Kids grow up wanting to be that guy. Every kid when I was young wanted to grow up and be Bo Jackson. They wanted to be one of the great players. Quarterbacks wanted to be Jay Barker.

"Those were the guys that every kid in Alabama grows up wanting to be—and to get that opportunity I think is a dream come true for any kid on either side of that ball."

Grant will have that opportunity Saturday, to etch his name in the record books during one of the biggest games in series history.

Suddenly, all of those struggles—from Opelika to Tuscaloosa and back again—are in the past.

He's put it all behind him.

"Tail lights."

Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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