By Scott Latta, UA Media Relations
Terry Grant is lined up beside quarterback John Parker Wilson in the shotgun formation, Alabama up by 13 over Tennessee, four minutes into the fourth quarter of their home contest against the Volunteers.
The second half, though controlled by Alabama, has not put the game out of reach yet, and the Alabama offense has taken the ball 74 yards deep into Tennessee territory, where they now face third-and-five at the Tennessee eight-yard line.
The Alabama offense, showing pass, puts Wilson and Grant five yards behind center Evan Cardwell. Four receivers are spread wide, including three to Wilson’s right, and the Tennessee defense lines up to defend the pass: four players match up on the receivers, three linebackers are in the defensive backfield, and four linemen are set to pressure the quarterback.
Alabama is three seconds away from a touchdown.
One: Wilson receives Cardwell’s snap and hands it right to Grant, who turns left up the gut of the line of scrimmage. The Tennessee defense, dropping back to defend what they thought would be a third-down pass, has no one in the area.
Two: Grant gashes right up the middle, untouched, following the block of Cardwell, who has to run all the way to the goal line just to find a defender to put a hand on. The defensive backs, noticing the run, sprint forward. Grant makes a move, shaking to the left behind Cardwell.
Three: Four Tennessee defenders converge on Grant near the goal line, but his forward momentum carries him out of their grasp and into the end zone as they collide on the field. After the two-point conversion, Alabama will be up by 21 with 10 minutes to go before beating the Volunteers 41-17 to run their record to 6-2 on the season.
It’s an advantage Alabama coaches have exploited numerous times this season: the Tennessee defense, in respecting the passing ability of Wilson, forgot about Terry Grant, and the redshirt freshman was able to use his shiftiness and home run ability to gash another SEC defense.
From the Alabama backfield, Grant has an uncanny ability to recognize what a defense has given him and find a hole to fit through, even if there seemingly isn’t one to be found. It’s field vision, he says, and he uses it to his advantage on every run.
“Sometimes I can see too much, which [running backs] coach [Burton] Burns always tells me about,” Grant said. “Sometimes it’s great being real shifty and seeing things move around and getting through holes.”
In the cast of the Alabama backfield, Grant plays the role of home-run threat. At 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, he is the smallest of the Alabama tailbacks and the self-proclaimed fastest man on the team.
In 2006, before he missed the majority of the season due to shoulder surgery, Grant was undefeated in team races. The format was simple: a coach would call out two players, and they would line up next to each other and run a determined amount. In three tries, nobody beat him.
Through eight games, Grant has used that speed to average more than five yards-per-carry for the Tide. His seven touchdowns are an Alabama freshman record, breaking former Alabama running back and current NFL starter Shaun Alexander’s former record of six.
Still, Grant runs like he has something to prove, and with one of the smaller frames on the Alabama roster feels like he has to demonstrate his durability, especially after missing 10 games in 2006 after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
In Alabama’s 13-10 win over Vanderbilt last season, Grant was being run out of bounds by a Commodore defender when he re-aggravated his shoulder, feeling the pain immediately when hit the ground.
He knew instantly, he said, what had happened.
“It was terrible pain,” Grant said. “It shot down like a stinger, but worse. I knew I was on the edge then but was playing through it and when I felt it I was just like, I can’t take it anymore.”
“I never said anything to the coaches. I was doing my own rehab with the trainer and when they found out about it on the MRI they decided to go ahead and do surgery.”
Grant, a Lumberton, Miss. native, rebounded from the surgery to claim the starting tailback spot in 2007 over sophomores Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch, and proved almost instantly his right in the Alabama backfield. In Alabama’s season opener against Western Carolina, all it took was one play: on the Tide’s first play from scrimmage, Grant took Wilson’s handoff around the right tackle and used his speed to break free for a 47-yard touchdown.
Once he gets past the initial wave of defenders at the line of scrimmage, he said, he’s only looking at one thing.
“I’m focusing on trying to get in the end zone,” he said. “Most of the time I’m looking at the end zone unless there’s someone I can see out of the corner of my eye or somebody coming right at me.”
Grant, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week for each of the first three weeks of the season, is one-third of a stable of running backs that has brought the ground game back to the Alabama offense after a 2006 season that saw the Tide score only 10 touchdowns on the ground in 13 games, with none coming from starting tailback Ken Darby. Through eight games this season, Alabama has 17 rushing touchdowns and just less than 250 fewer rushing yards than the team recorded in all of 2006.
The success of the running game could be attributed partially to the team’s ability to mix and match its tailbacks, each of whom brings a different style to the Alabama offense. Grant is the speedster, the elusive, shifty back with big-play ability. Coffee, who is averaging almost five yards-per-carry and has four touchdowns, is the bruiser, using his 6-foot-2, 197-pound frame to wear out defenses. Upchurch, who is averaging almost six yards-per-carry, is a mix of both.
The balance of playing time between the three does nothing to add pressure to perform while he is in the game, Grant said. Instead, it puts the pressure solely somewhere else: the opponent.
“I say there’s more on the defense because we’ve got so many guys that can do different things because we’re all different,” he said. “Every back has a different style. Some are big guys that can pound a defense and wear them down and some are little guys like me that can get in there and make a big run.”
With two of Alabama’s biggest games ahead of him, including Saturday’s match up against LSU, Grant knows Alabama will have to establish the run to take pressure off the passing game. And with an SEC West title still in reach, he knows there too may be something left to prove on the field as a team.
“I think I’ve done pretty good but could do better,” Grant said. “As a running back I’ve left a lot of yards on the field but that comes with being young. Just doing my part is all I focus on and trying to get in with everybody else.”