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Iron Bowl a ‘personal game’ for Auburn’s Grant

Auburn running back Corey Grant has been on both sides of the Iron Bowl rivalry and is entering Saturday’s game as one of the top athletes in the SEC. (Reuters)

Auburn running back Corey Grant has been on both sides of the Iron Bowl rivalry and is entering Saturday’s game as one of the top athletes in the SEC. (Reuters)

AUBURN, Ala. — In a state where allegiances divide families, Corey Grant has seen the Iron Bowl from both sides.

Before “Tail Lights” was averaging 9.9 yards per carry or returning kickoffs 90 yards for touchdowns for Auburn, Grant started his college career at Alabama. After being moved to defense and redshirting in 2010, Grant decided to come home where he began his Auburn career as a walk-on, earned a scholarship and is now one of the most explosive offensive players in the SEC.

When No. 4 Auburn hosts No. 1 Alabama in the biggest Iron Bowl ever Saturday afternoon, it will be Grant’s first time taking the field against his former team.

“It’s a personal game,” he said. “It’s a big game, but I’m going to treat it like any other game.”

A former four-star recruit, Grant was rated the No. 5 all-purpose back by Rivals, but he was moved to defense early in his tenure with the Crimson Tide.

“It was really just spring ball after coach tried me at corner and the things I was getting recruited for, I wasn’t really doing,” Grant said. “I figured around that time, maybe I need to get into a spread offense.”

He transferred to Auburn prior to the 2011 season and began his stint on the Plains as a walk-on to play in then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

“Coming back it was kind of exciting,” Grant said. “Everybody welcomed me back. 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 at all.”

Then of course, Malzahn left for Arkansas State, and Grant was inexplicably almost never used in Scot Loeffler’s failed attempt at a pro-style offense in 2012, with just nine carries for 29 yards in two non-conference routs. So when Malzahn was hired at Auburn, Grant was elated.

“That was a great feeling once they announced that, and it was set in stone and the coaches were coming back,” Grant said. “That excited me because that was what I came back for, and for him to be coming back was just perfect.”

Grant missed the final few spring practices and A-Day because he was sick. Once he hit the field for the season opener, he showed the breakaway speed which made him a two-time 6A state 100-meter champion, with nine carries for 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run, against Washington State.

An ankle injury slowed him for a few games, but Grant has 56 carries for 557 yards and five touchdowns and four kickoff returns for 139 yards and a score. His 9.9 yards per carry don’t qualify nationally because of his limited attempts, but it would lead the nation.

“He’s a big-play guy,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s strong (and) it’s a great element.”

Grant’s elusiveness fills the role of former Auburn speedster Onterio McCalebb perfectly, but he brings far great size to the table. Now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad, McCalebb is just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds; whereas Grant is 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds.

Where McCalebb was either outrunning defenders or getting out of bounds, Grant has been willing to take on tacklers head on.

“I have noticed that, and that’s one thing I try to keep in mind,” Grant said. “Just because I’m a speed sweep guy doesn’t mean I can’t deliver the hit.”

Grant said he still keeps in touch with linebacker C.J. Mosley, tight end Brian Vogler and safety Jarrick Williams from Alabama, though not this week, not with all that’s at stake in the Iron Bowl.

“They look at it as their No. 1 game of the year,” Grant said. “It’s going to be treated by them like they’re playing for the national championship.”

Though Auburn is treating the Iron Bowl the same way. Once the game arrives, there may not be any player on the field who will appreciate it all more than Grant.

“I think he’s going to be extremely excited,” fullback Jay Prosch said. “He’s going to be ready to go. He’s definitely having a good season, and I think he has a good role that he feels comfortable with.”

The journey from Opelika to Tuscaloosa and back to the Plains was like “starting from the bottom again,” as Grant put it.

“But it all worked out.”