"I'm having fun. It's good to get in the games and not have to be on the sidelines watching. I'm having a ton of fun."
A highly touted recruit when he signed with Alabama in 1999, Beard saw only limited action on special teams as a true freshman. Then before his second year began, lingering effects from spring surgery on his knee and a shoulder injury in the fall resulted in a redshirt.
The arrival of the new coaching staff last winter provided a fresh start to everyone. And with a good spring and off season, Beard had high hopes headed into this season. But when he didn't play a single down in Bama's close victory over Vanderbilt, Beard was frankly close to giving up. "After the Vanderbilt game, I actually didn't know what to think," he related. "That game really pushed me. It let me know I had to improve to be able to play here."
"Back in the spring Santonio was down on the depth chart," said Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione. "He started fall third- or fourth-string, and he had to keep hanging in there. He definitely had some frustrations."
Beard briefly considered a transfer, but decided to stay. And from that point on his progress was slow but sure. Game by game his carries increased, until a 141-yard performance against Tennessee had his name in the spotlight. "There was no way I could have envisioned it," Beard said. "Coach Fran talked to me and helped me a lot. He told me, ‘Santonio, just be patient. Once you do these couple of things, you're going to be a great player.' I've just listened to him, and everything he said is coming true."
The Tide coaches knew Beard was a talented runner, but tailbacks do more than simply carry the football. "Santonio showed flashes," Franchione explained. "But he needed to work on his attention to detail, his blocking, his footwork--just a little thing like taking the right steps and being in the right place on fakes.
"But as time wore on and he got more plays, as he got into games and did better--trusting him and believing in him and him believing in himself came together. Depending on how practice goes this week, Santonio could start Saturday."
"I'm ready," Beard said. "I've been ready for that all my life."
Beard always believed he was Bama's most talented runner, so it took a little time for him to completely trust Franchione's message. "At the time I kind of questioned him," Beard admitted. "He was the head coach, but I really didn't know him. Knowing what last year's coaches did…
"But now I trust him. He's a man of his word. Everything that he said he would do, he's done. Now I trust him 100 percent."
Franchione said recently that Beard was a ‘high rep' athlete, a runner who needs repetitive carries in practice and games to learn and excel at his position. "I think the more carries I get, the better I'll be," Beard agreed. "As I go from quarter to quarter, I feel like I get stronger. Every time I run the ball, I feel like I get stronger and stronger.
"I'd like to be that kind of back. A guy you can give it to 20-25 times. I'm trying to get there. The more I get the ball, the more chances I have to break a big one."
Versus a tough Mississippi State defense last weekend, Beard combined with fellow tailback Ahmaad Galloway for 166 yards. But he gives credit to quarterback Andrew Zow for loosening up the Bulldog D. "We play to our strengths," Beard explained. "Saturday Andrew was in the game, and he's the better passer. So we mixed it up. We ran a little bit and threw short patterns.
"I thought that opened up the running game. We proved that we're not just an option team, we can run the ball off tackle. I thought the coaches did an excellent job of play calling."
Beard was credited with 95 yards on 15 carries, for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. He also scored twice, including the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. "On that touchdown run, State was blitzing from the right-hand side," Beard related. "Going into the huddle, Coach (Franchione) said that if we didn't have it, then he wanted Andrew to call a timeout. Andrew looked both ways and saw that the blitz was coming, so he decided to audible. We ran the option left and scored.
"It was a good audible and a good play. It was a perfect pitch. All I had to do was run in and score."
The victory kept Bama's faint bowl hopes alive, making next Saturday's road trip to Auburn all the more crucial. Beard explained; "I know it's going to be a great feeling being down there. A lot will be on the line. It's the Auburn game at Jordan-Hare. Those are the kind of games you want to be in. Those are the kind of games you come to Alabama to play. I grew up watching it on television when it used to be played in Birmingham. I was hoping that one day I'd be the running back that scored the winning touchdown."
Playing only on special teams, Beard was a member of the 1999 SEC championship squad, coincidentally the last road team to win at Auburn. "I remember the atmosphere two years ago," he said. "I remember driving up and the fans shaking the buses, throwing rocks at the buses. We get off and they're throwing liquor bottles, screaming and yelling at us.
"But I also remember Shaun (Alexander) just dominating that fourth quarter. Auburn really had no answer for him. They couldn't tackle him. I remember him dominating the game. The fourth quarter was his."
Unlike many of his teammates, Beard is not a native of Alabama. But he understands the importance of Saturday's showdown. "It's not difficult for me to get into it, because I grew up an Alabama fan," Beard explained. "So it's a big game for me. Being from Nashville, Vanderbilt and Tennessee... That's not a big game. But Alabama/Auburn... To me that's the biggest rivalry in college football. Our goal now is to win each game and try to get to a bowl. And we've got to win that game to keep our bowl hopes alive.
"It's Auburn. That's all you've got to say."