Beard & Bama, successful & loving it

Talk about a roller-coaster season. Only months ago Santonio Beard was buried so deep on the depth chart that he seriously wondered whether a transfer might be in his future. <br><br>But over the last several games the sophomore tailback has emerged as the Tide's premier runner, seizing a starting job in the process. "This is the best of times," Beard said. "We're winning. I'm playing well. This is what I came to Alabama for."

After a stellar rushing performance in Bama's victory over Auburn, Beard now sports an impressive average of 8.2 yards per carry. But earlier disappointments help keep him grounded. Beard explained; "It didn't happen overnight. It's been a long, hard drive for me. Learning the college game. Learning a new system. Coming in with new coaches. I've had to get a new offense down pat.

"It's been a long haul, but it's paying off now."

Beard began the season no better than fourth string, working behind Ahmaad Galloway, Ray Hudson and Brandon Miree. After the Vanderbilt game, Miree left the team, clearing up the picture somewhat. And when Hudson failed to produce on a consistent basis, Beard's playing time gradually increased.

Now Bama's starting tailback, Beard is averaging more than eight yards per carry.

"I knew I was good all along," Beard explained. "The coaches told me I was good. I just needed to work on some things. Once I worked on those things I became a better player. I worked on my footwork, my blocking techniques, running every play the way it's supposed to be run. Now the coaches have gotten confidence in me and I've done well."

‘Well' would probably be an understatement. Starting for the first time versus Auburn, Beard responded with a breakout game, including two touchdowns and almost 10 yards per carry. "I saw it coming," Beard said. "I didn't know that I would rush for 199 yards, but I thought we would do well. And I thought we would win. I didn't expect the total domination that we had, but I knew that we would win the game."

"He's the classic game player, and he lets everybody know it," explained starting center Alonzo Ephraim. "When you've got a back that wants it so badly, they keep it up. They keep going. They're vocal in the huddle. They're vocal on the field. That's Santonio."

As Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione explains, even though Beard took the first snap versus Auburn, the coaches consider former starter Ahmaad Galloway a co-number one. Working in tandem with Beard, Galloway contributed 127 yards on only 14 carries in the recent Bama victory. "Ahmaad had a great game," Beard said. "We push each other. He makes a big run, then I want to make a big run."

Of course any time a team has two talented runners, fans wonder whether there are enough footballs to go around. "There were enough footballs last week," Beard said with a laugh. "If we keep running like that, we'll be fine. I believe Ahmaad had (14) carries and I had 20. That's enough."

Bouncing back and forth from shotgun, to option, to one back and even two tailbacks at once, the Tide offense has defied characterization this season. "It's multiple," Beard said. "Whatever is working we stay with it. I can't even tell you what kind of offense we'll have this week. Whatever is working."

As the leader of this season's offensive line, junior Alonzo Ephraim has a theory about Beard's recent success. "I think he has more of a fire in him now," Ephraim said. "The coaches were rotating him in earlier in the season and he got a taste. He's a competitor. The more he gets in, the more he wants the ball.

"He told me this week in practice, ‘I'm going to make my cuts off your block. If you get the block, then I'm going to make the cuts.'"

Shown making a one-handed grab at practice, catching the football is about the only thing Beard has yet to contribute to the Tide offense.

Like all good offensive linemen, Ephraim takes pride in the success of his running backs. And Beard's newfound confidence and attitude is music to his ears. "When you see that fire in a running back's eyes, when he tells you he's counting on your block to make his cuts, that makes you want to block for him more," Ephraim said. "That puts him in that Shaun Alexander mode. Just give me the ball."

Even though Beard is only a sophomore in terms of eligibility, this is his third season at Alabama. A combination of injuries, including a torn ACL and separated shoulder combined to force a redshirt season in 2000. "Physically, I'm fine now," he related. "I'm as healthy as I've been. Strong and doing great. I've been doing shoulder exercises with Coach Pollard (Alabama's Strength and Conditioning coach) and Rodney (Brown, the Head Football Trainer), getting it stronger. I'm doing well."

Now that he's earned the starting job at tailback, Beard isn't ready to rest on his laurels. "I need to continue working on my blocking," he explained. "I'd like to get some passes out of the backfield, but I want to play within our scheme. I need to work on some technique things and my blocking."

Because of his redshirt status, Beard didn't play in last season's embarrassing 21-0 loss to Southern Miss. But he suffered along with the rest of his teammates. "This year we're going to be ready," Beard said. "There's a lot at stake. We're on a two-game winning streak, and we feel confident after the Auburn game. We want to have a winning season and go to a bowl game. Everybody wants to get back to a bowl game."

And don't worry that the squad will be down after the exciting victory over its archrival. According to Beard, the stakes are simply too high for that to happen. "Oh no, no, no, we're up," he said. "This is just like Auburn week. This is for a bowl game. We want to keep playing, so we're going to be ready to play."

A victory would clinch a winning season and a bowl bid for Alabama, and Beard intends to savor every minute. "It's very fun right now--I mean man!" Beard said. "We're finishing strong. We're confident. That confidence will carry over to winter. And that will go on to the spring--and all the way to next year."

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