"I'm thankful for the chance," Beard continued. "And I believe I'm stronger now for it. Mentally, nothing can get in my way now. I'm just trying to strive forward."
With 5,630 yards and 91 touchdowns during his high school career, great things were expected of Beard. But though he played 86 snaps on special teams, Beard saw no offensive action as a true freshman. Then off-season knee surgery and an August shoulder injury ended his 2000 season before it began, forcing a redshirt year.
And frankly, this season didn't start out much better.
Beard began 2001 listed no better than third string at tailback, behind Ahmaad Galloway and Brandon Miree. He took a ‘DNP' (did not play) in the first two games, and was especially discouraged when freshman Ray Hudson briefly passed him on the depth chart. But encouragement from his family and the Tide coaches convinced him to hang in. "They've told me each week that I was getting better," Beard said. "Coach Fran talked to me and made sure I knew I was getting better. I just wanted to get in the game and do whatever it took for me to help this team."
But since September things have changed. First Miree left for "greener pastures" (and he hopes more carries) at the University of Pittsburgh. Then Beard began a steady climb up the depth chart. "Right now I'm feeling very good. The carries I get, I'm thankful for those. I think I'm producing once I get into the game. I'm trying to make the best of my opportunities when I do get in, and that's all I can ask for. Hopefully my carries will continue to increase.
"I have personal goals, but right now they're put aside. I just really want to win, this week and every week. I'm always ready. I always want a chance to carry the ball. But it's coach's decision whether to run or pass. If I play within the system, then I will achieve my personal goals."
If one goal was to prove he could get the job done, then Beard has certainly succeeded. He got only one carry versus Arkansas, but he turned in a pretty 14-yard scamper. Against a rugged South Carolina defense, the sophomore tailback carried 12 times for 49 yards. The following week, Beard was used sparingly against UTEP but still managed 51 yards on seven attempts. Against Ole Miss, his carries went down (only four) but the yardage (69) increased. And then came last week's breakout game, in which Beard rushed for 141 yards on only 10 carries versus his home-state university.
"Tennessee was obviously tough to run against," Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione said. "But we had some success. Santonio got hot. He gets a little better every week. Those of you that have watched him as we've gone along have seen that. He is one guy that has made steady improvement."
Numbers don't lie. Match Beard's 141 against first-stringer Ahmaad Galloway's two net yards, and another depth chart change would appear imminent. "I don't know about that," Beard responded. "I just go out there and do whatever it takes for me to help this team win. If it's getting two carries or it's getting 16 carries, I'll just do whatever it takes to win."
Predictably, the coaches are also careful in addressing the subject. "He's certainly raising his stock in his effort to overtake Ahmaad," Franchione said. "Galloway is more consistent, and he plays better when he doesn't have the ball in his hand. He's more consistent in his blocking and catching the football.
"But if Santonio can improve his playing when he doesn't have to ball to match how he's playing when he does have the ball in his hands, then that would certainly put us in the situation where he could be the starter."
No one argues that Galloway is a tough, hard-nosed runner who gives you every ounce of effort. But Beard shows signs of being a playmaker. Tide Offensive Coordinator Les Koenning explained; "He shows flashes of quickness and speed. You can see that when he turns the corner. It's nice to have that extra speed, very nice. He's stepping up to the front."
Beard assessed his running style; "When I come in I think I bring excitement. You never know, because I never know what I'm going to do. I may run off tackle and cut back. I never know what I'm going to do. I just basically run off instinct."
So what will it take to convince the coaches they can ‘trust' him enough to give him the ball more during games? "I'm trying to stay focused and consistent," Beard explained. "If we are running 30 plays, then I want to run all 30 right, not running 27 or 28 right but all 30 right. As long as I stay focused when I'm in there during practice, then the coaches will have more confidence in me and I'll get more carries during the game."
Heading into Saturday's game, most of the talk focused on Tennessee's outstanding defense. The Volunteer ‘D' was allowing only 47 yards per game on the ground, but Alabama more than tripled that number. "We weren't surprised," Beard said. "After all, we're the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC. We're going to do what we always do--no matter who we play. We're going to run the football.
"Our offensive line is playing well. They're very young. Tennessee came out and tried to overpower them, but it didn't happen. We ran the option and we ran up the middle. We showed them why we're the No. 1 rushing offense in the conference. The line played well. They got me on the edge, and I just ran."
Statistically, Beard was the only successful Bama runner in the game, contributing 141 of the Tide's 163 rushing yards. "I actually have no idea why I was successful," Beard related. "I thought they were going to try and take Tyler (Watts) out of the game, and they came up and were hitting on him. I just got outside the defense and used my speed to get to the corner."
Beard's third quarter romp for 69 yards through the very heart of the vaunted Volunteer D was the highlight of his day. "I started out going to the right, and their defense runs very well so they overplayed me," Beard related. "I cut back to the left and broke free. As I was running downfield I got a little winded and got caught. I hoped to get a block, but the man got off the block so they caught me."
The play set Alabama up at the Tennessee 11-yardline, and two plays later Galloway ran in for the score. "Yes, I would have liked to have scored," Beard said. "But I don't care about touchdowns. I just want to do whatever it takes for the team to win."
Unfortunately, that touchdown gave Alabama its last lead. Tennessee responded with two long touchdown drives to win the game in the fourth quarter. And afterwards, the Nashville native had to put up with some ragging from UT. "I've got quite a few friends--at least five or six," Beard explained. "They congratulated me on my performance running. And they gave me some grief about it being seven in a row."
Chief among those friends is John Henderson, Tennessee's star defensive lineman who played with Beard in high school. "I know him very well," Beard related. "We jawed a little bit during the game, and afterwards he gave me a hug. He congratulated me, and I congratulated him on the victory. I grew up in Tennessee and heard ‘Rocky Top,' a lot--a song that I really don't like.
"I'm probably going to hear ‘seven in a row.' But that's OK. We're a young team, and we'll be back."
"Saturday's loss was very tough," Beard continued. "I wanted that game badly. But unfortunately we came up short. We'll bounce back from that loss and get ready for LSU in two weeks. We want to finish out the season with a winning note."
Just a sophomore himself running behind an offensive line that includes three redshirt freshmen, Beard has no problem staying optimistic. "The future is definitely ahead for us," he said. "Week to week our offense is getting better and better. I think we can only look forward.
"Things look bright for us."