Averaging 5.0 yards per carry, Beard has gained 684 yards this season, just 29 behind his backfield mate, Shaud Williams. Both are considered by the Tide staff as co-starters at tailback. "There is not really a comparison with where Santonio is today," Franchione said. "He knows his assignments and his protections better than ever before."
Given that Williams is a smaller, quicker running back, it's tempting to come up with a nickname like "Thunder and Lightning" to describe the duo, but frankly that wouldn't do justice to either. Williams is just as prone to gain yardage running inside as out, and Beard is equal parts flash and power.
Privately Tide coaches acknowledge that Beard has NFL talent, but his problem has been consistency. Weeks 5, 6 and 7 of this season illustrate the point. Versus Arkansas Beard was the prototype power back, rushing 21 times for a game-high 138 yards as the Tide dominated the Razorbacks on the ground. And in week seven he virtually ran wild, totaling 138 yards on only 13 carries versus Ole Miss and scoring a school record five rushing touchdowns.
But sandwiched between those two star turns, Beard was a disappointing 15-for-30 in week six against Georgia, for a very average 2.0 yards per run.
Too often in his career Beard seems to give up at the point of attack, bouncing outside instead of taking the moderate gain. "There have been some times when Santonio hasn't hit things as vertically as we would have wanted," Franchione acknowledged.
Turning down home-state Tennessee to sign with the Tide, Beard was a highly touted recruit out of Nashville in 1999. As a true freshman he played in 12 of Bama's 13 games, though primarily on special teams. The following season shoulder surgery and knee problems forced a redshirt year.
Beard's sophomore year was Franchione's first at The Capstone, and frankly it took him awhile to adjust. When the season began he was down the Tide depth chart, behind Ahmaad Galloway, Brandon Miree and possibly even Ray Hudson. Even for a team that likes to run the football, there are simply not enough carries to go around for four tailbacks.
Beard's confidence pretty much hit rock bottom, when he traveled with his team to play Vanderbilt. Family and friends were in the stands hoping to cheer on their hometown hero, but Beard didn't get into the game. "Last year Santonio was still learning a new offense," Franchione said. "With limited experience going into last year, it was very difficult for him and many of our young men to be confident in a new offense. I know that he was frustrated when he didn't get to play."
But then things changed.
Looking to be his team's "feature back," Miree left the squad, transferring to Pittsburgh. And after starting slowly, Beard got better and better each week.
In a losing effort versus Tennessee, Beard broke a 51-year-old school record by averaging 14.1 yards per carry. He had a pair of rushing touchdowns in the Tide's turnaround victory over Mississippi State, and his 199 yards against Auburn helped crush the Tigers in their own stadium.
Beard finished that season averaging a startling 8.2 yards per carry.
Sharing time and carries with Ahmaad Galloway and Shaud Williams, Beard's production in the early part of this season was moderate. But since Galloway's season-ending injury, Beard's carries have gone up--along with his yardage. "The more reps he gets the better he gets," was how Franchione put it. "He's a guy that is going to improve with more playing time and more understanding of an offense."
But again, despite being excellent in stretches, Beard can be plagued by inconsistency. Against home-state Tennessee in Knoxville, Beard was obviously motivated, running hard for 67 tough yards and scoring twice. But the following week versus Vanderbilt, he was a mediocre 16 yards on eight carries. Against the Bulldogs of Mississippi State, Beard gained 76 yards on 14 carries. Then last week versus LSU and its No. 1 ranked defense, he was once again very good, gaining 116 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.
"I think most of the time Santonio's switch is on," Franchione said. "But I think he feeds off of success. Saturday (versus LSU) that switch was on, because he ran very well."
Franchione has often talked to Beard about "settling" for the four-yard gain instead of trying to score on every carry, explaining that with enough four-yarders the big-hitters will inevitably come.
"Saturday was one of those times when we saw Santonio get into his zone," Franchione said. "I thought he made three or four runs that he may have only gotten four or five yards, but they were runs that he stopped and cut back. Even when there were several guys unblocked Santonio still made four or five yards."
Obviously it would be nice to score on every play, but often a running back's job is to pick up the tough yards, allowing his team to control the clock and win the game. Franchione explained, "Some of those runs weren't flashy plays that people watching television might have noticed, but they were almost better runs than his touchdown plays. Santonio made great cuts and plants and got vertical and got some hard yards.
"When Santonio gets into his zone, he is a pretty good running back. That's what we want him to do on a consistent basis."