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October 2, 2010

Mark Ingram: We can't live off our past success

It was probably the most memorable pushup you'll ever see.

University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram was giving an ESPN film crew a tour of the football facilities as part of its preseason all-access show and a producer was trying to come up with an easy way to demonstrate how athletically impressive the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner really is.

There was the filming of the Tiger Woods-esque skill of repeatedly bouncing a golf ball off a club, but he wanted to balance that by also showing Ingram's physical raw strength in some way. So Ingram was challenged to a pushup contest, who in turn gave him something much better visually: "I can do a pushup that you can't."

With the camera rolling the junior approached the wall of the bottom-floor tiled hallway in the football building, flipped himself over onto his hands, found his balance without touching anything and then did the full-body descent and subsequent lift as effortlessly as the golf trick that also took just one take.

That's why junior center William Vlachos says Ingram's the best player he's ever been around and sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower is glad not to be on the opposing side during a game. He does what the great ones do, make it look easy.

"I just want to be a better player," Ingram said was his primary goal for this season. "I want to be the best player I can be. I know there's a lot of room for improvement.

"We can't live off our past success."

Yet if Ingram was looking for additional motivation for the 2010 campaign it wouldn't be difficult to find.

For example, there's trying to become a just the second player in college football history to win two Heisman Trophies, joining Archie Griffin (1974-75).

Even before his preseason knee injury critics were already claiming that he couldn't do it. Their various reasons ranged from sophomore Trent Richardson getting more carries and the higher emphasis on the passing game to Alabama having an extremely difficult schedule with numerous opponents facing the Crimson Tide after their bye week. Additionally, everything had to fall into place for Ingram in 2009, with closest vote in Heisman history after he "only" had to beat out 2007 winner Tim Tebow, 2008 winner Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Toby Gerhart and Ndamukong Suh among others.

In addition to being the first running back since Pitt's Tony Dorsett in 1976 to win both the Heisman and the national championship during same season, he's hoping to lead the Crimson Tide to some equally rare territory. Among them, no program has ever won back-to-back BCS championship games, and the last team to successfully defend its Southeastern Conference title was Tennessee in 1997-98.

Also, the Alabama career rushing record is within his grasp. Ingram came into the season with 2,386 yards, not even needing to average 100 yards per game to surpass Shaun Alexander's mark of 3,565 (1996-99).

Then there are some of the personal factors, like the death of his grandfather Arthur Johnson just when camp opened, the man Ingram said taught him to compete. While those around him will never forget Ingram's heart-felt speech while accepting the Heisman, he'll always remember his grandfather's reaction.

"He the happiest dude ever," Ingram said. "We were taking pictures and stuff and he was talking in the middle of the pictures, so we have pictures and he's just running his mouth. He was smiling, grabbing the trophy like it was his. He had three daughters so I guess I was like a son to him.

"He's like my second father."

That, in many ways helps explain why so many can't help but be so impressed after watching Ingram play or meeting him, that it's not just what he does but how he does it.

Like the bouncing golf ball. It's something many people who dedicate their lives to the sport will never be able to do, yet Ingram does with ease despite not having played regularly for years. He once shot a 69 while trying to qualify for a tournament in the eighth grade and when football wasn't completely dominating his life in high school Ingram was a nine-time all-state track athlete and played basketball while his mother also had a steadfast rule that he needed at least a 3.0 GPA to keep playing sports. In similar style, he's on pace to graduate early from Alabama with a communications degree in hopes of someday become a broadcaster.

Of course, that may not be for some time. He's still busy running through and around defenses.

"He has a lot of field presence, he has great vision," said Alabama linebacker Chris Jordan, a former running back himself. "He can see the defense, read the defense and he knows where the cutbacks are before the cutback is even there, so he's already cutting back before the hole is there so he's hitting it full speed. He has great vision, footwork and speed."

It led to his establishing the Alabama single-season rushing record with 1,658 yards last season, with a whopping 1,075 yards after contact (249 carries, 30 receptions) and 20 total touchdowns. Meanwhile, he's lost just one career fumble.

"Yards after contact, I think, is a mental thing, not letting the first man bring you down, trying to get as many yards as you can, try and make a play when your team needs the play," Ingram said. "You just need to make a play for them. It's something mental. I don't think it's something you can work on. You can work on getting your knees up, pad level low.

"When it comes to game time it's your willingness, your desire to keep getting extra guys, keep fighting, try and make a play for the team."

So that's where the focus is and stays, beating that first man, then the next one and so on. To turn small gains into big gains. To, in the words of Coach Nick Saban, dominate, not just as a player but as an offense.

"We definitely want to be the best in school history, the best in the country," Ingram said. "I think that's everyone's goal on our team, to best offense, the most explosive offense we can be. That's our attitude going into every single practice.

"It's never gonna be easy."

Especially for a Heisman winner who is the face of college football this season, and not just for his team or conference. Every move he makes, both on and off the field, is watched more closely than anyone in Crimson Tide history - yes, even Joe Namath when he was a student in the 19060s.

"Everywhere I go, people recognize me," Ingram said. "They meet me, want to take pictures. That's exciting. Something you dream of as a kid. Having kids come up to you, you're a role model for them, they want to grow up like you are, it's humbling, a blessing.

"I'm excited I can impact a younger person's life like that. That's real special to me, real touching to me."


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