When Auburn won college football's 2010 national championship, the Tigers possessed do-it-all quarterback Cam Newton, powerful tailback Michael Dyer and speed threat Onterio McCalebb.
Auburn may have found its fleet-of-foot force for this season.
In last Saturday's 31-24 opening win over Washington State, Corey Grant rushed nine times for 146 yards and a touchdown. His score occurred on a 75-yard speed sweep down the left sideline midway through the second quarter, which put the Tigers ahead to stay at 22-21.
"Corey can really run, and I think everybody saw that," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the game. "He's got speed that is comparable to Onterio McCalebb, and we just need to find ways to get him the ball."
The 5-foot-11, 201-pound redshirt junior from neighboring Opelika doesn't mind the comparisons to McCalebb, who rushed for 2,586 yards and 6.4 yards a carry during his four-year career that concluded last November. McCalebb ran for 810 yards and 8.5 yards a carry during Auburn's championship season, including a 70-yard touchdown that clinched a 24-17 win over LSU.
"McCalebb was a great player and did some great things for Auburn," Grant said Tuesday, "but I also want to do even better than he did. I just have to make things happen when I get the opportunity."
Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,002 yards last season and was the lone bright spot on a horrific offense, expects to be the busiest of Auburn's tailbacks this year. Mason got 15 carries in the opener for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the California Community College Athletic Association last season with 2,048 yards, had 10 carries for 52 yards against the Cougars.
Auburn rushed 46 times as a team for 295 yards, essentially doubling its 148.4-yard average in 2012, when coach Gene Chizik was in his fourth and final season. The tailbacks last week aided quarterback Nick Marshall, who was a shaky 10-of-19 passing for 99 yards in his debut.
"I think we did great," junior center Reese Dismukes said. "There is obviously a lot we need to work on, but it felt good. We were gashing them."
Though Artis-Payne arrived from the junior college ranks, Grant had a more unusual trek to the Plains. Rated among the nation's top five all-purpose backs in the 2010 signing class, he signed with Alabama.
He redshirted during the 2010 season in Tuscaloosa and announced in June 2011 that he was transferring, with his destination ultimately being Auburn.
"When I first made the decision to leave Alabama, it was pretty rough, because I heard a lot of good things but also heard a lot of bad things from fans," Grant said. "I guess I wound up hearing more good things overall. I wanted to get away from home coming out of high school, and Alabama recruited me as their speed back guy, but once I got there, they weren't really utilizing that type of player.
"That's when I realized I should probably make a change."
When reporters asked Nick Saban's reaction to Grant's departure, the Alabama coach admitted his surprise.
Grant had to sit out the 2011 season due to transfer rules and was not a factor on last year's offense, playing in seven games and totaling nine carries for 29 yards. He touched the ball on Auburn's second play from scrimmage last Saturday and gained 15 yards.
"He was awesome, and I'm proud of him," Dismukes said. "He's a guy who works hard, and he really came out and busted it. We need a guy who can do that every week."
Said Grant: "The hard work always pays off, and after sitting out all those years, having that opportunity was something I wanted to take advantage of."
The Tigers host Arkansas State, which was coached by Malzahn last year, on Saturday before commencing Southeastern Conference play with games against Mississippi State and LSU.
"The sky is the limit for this offense," Grant said. "I just think we'll get better and better every week."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...
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