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‘Bama’s Coffee finally breaking long runs

TUSCALOOSA – Alabama tailback Glen Coffee came into the season wanting to prove he can be a big-play runner. First, he needed to convince himself.

So there he was breaking free for a career-best 51-yarder against Western Kentucky and a week later sprinting 87 yards against Arkansas for the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide.

“That was something I needed to show myself that I could do,” Coffee said.

Like the player himself, Coffee’s career is finally taking off after weathering two knee surgeries, a sports hernia and a suspension for violating NCAA rules regarding textbooks.

Coffee has emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference’s top rushers, ranking third with 404 yards and sporting an 8.6-yard clip per carry — more than double the junior’s previous career average — leading up to Saturday’s game at No. 3 Georgia.

“He’s got the mind-set every time he’s out there that he wants to score with it,” Tide center Antoine Caldwell said. “It used to be he’d go out there and (think) hey, we’re going to pop 5 yards here, 6 yards there, but every time he gets it now he’s trying to score with it.”

Coffee won a fairly crowded contest for the starting job before the season, beating out last year’s leading rusher Terry Grant, Roy Upchurch and hard-running freshman Mark Ingram.

So far, this has been the high-point of Coffee’s up-and-down career. He sat out the 2006 season with a knee injury sustained in fall camp, and has had the other knee scoped as well as surgery to repair a sports hernia.

Last season he had 545 yards but he and four teammates served four-game suspensions for violating NCAA rules by using their athletic scholarships to obtain free textbooks for other students. He didn’t have a rush over 20 yards on 129 carries.

Coffee nearly matched that per carry that last weekend at Arkansas, averaging a school-record 16.2 yards on 10 runs, including that 87-yarder. He said he has regained most, if not all, of his speed from the 2006 knee injury.

“I just have a little more confidence in my speed this year because it has been a while since I broke one like that, so that was sort of in the back of my head,” Coffee said. “It’s just a different mentality than last year.”

The 6-foot-1, 198-pounder from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., didn’t have to prove he was fast to teammate and fellow Floridian Mike McCoy. The receiver also said he had no doubt Coffee would win the footrace on that 87-yarder, the fourth-longest run in school history.

“He’s a Florida boy. All Florida boys are supposed to be fast,” McCoy said. “The Florida boys are known for their speed, so I knew he wasn’t going to get caught on the sideline.

“I was joking with him, telling him I came from across the field and almost beat him down the field. But I knew he wasn’t going to get caught from behind.”

Coffee wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher through two games, trailing Ingram. He is averaging fewer than 12 carries a game partly because Alabama has built big leads and partly because he’s splitting chances almost 50-50 with Ingram.

Caldwell said Coffee has displayed more patience and trust in his blockers in addition to the burst of speed.

“He’s not making premature moves,” Caldwell said. “Watching tape of this past week, he would hit the hole at the very last second when it would just open up. I think he’s being really patient and just reading the holes, reading the blocks very well.”

Left tackle Andre Smith said Coffee might be the second strongest player on the team behind nose tackle Josh Chapman.

“He’s stronger than me in some cases,” the 6-foot-4, 340-pounder said. “He’s a freakish athlete.”

Coffee did manage to outshine Clemson stars C.J. Spiller and James Davis in the opener. Next up is Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno, the SEC’s leading scorer and No. 2 rusher.

Like with the Clemson game, Coffee said he wouldn’t worry about Moreno’s stats until afterward. In the meantime, he’s enjoying the recent success, though he isn’t taking all the credit for it.

“That is cool, man, but it is all glory to God,” Coffee said. “It’s cool to get recognized, but as long as people know what I play for and why I play, which is Christ. All day, every day and I’m just a chill-out dude.

“If they said I was a Heisman contender I wouldn’t care. It’s just football to me.”