TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – No. 1 Alabama's Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram barely even felt like he played a football game when he woke up the morning after the Crimson Tide beat Duke, much less like a guy who was returning from knee surgery.
"I didn't even get hit much in my runs thanks to the offensive line," he said.
Well, that explains that.
The Crimson Tide tailback flashed his moves, his quickness and even his temper in his return Saturday at Duke. All in all, it was a nice way to return after missing the first two games of the season. Maximum yards, minimum hits.
It was also timely considering Alabama's next three tests: at No. 10 Arkansas on Saturday, followed by No. 8 Florida and a trip to No. 12 South Carolina.
Ingram raced to 151 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries in the 62-13 romp over the Blue Devils. It was an impressive — though possibly too late — debut in his bid for a second Heisman. He said he was only a bit sore on Sunday morning, and that was mostly from pass blocking.
"It was great just to be able to get back out there with the team," said Ingram, who had surgery on Aug. 31 after a practice injury. "It was hurting just not being able to be out there with them contributing the first two weeks. I really just wanted to get back out there and make an impact and show the team I'm still capable of making some plays."
Ingram said it was a contact injury in practice but didn't elaborate. He said it "was a little discouraging" and particularly tough missing a high-profile game against Penn State.
It made his return a little sweeter.
"You just cherish every (repetition). Every rep of practice, every rep of the game, you cherish it," Ingram said. "I've never really had to sit out because of an injury before, especially after having surgery. It was my first surgery. You definitely learn to cherish it a lot more."
Coach Nick Saban said Ingram came within two or three snaps of the number the coaches wanted him to play. Saban said they would continue to increase his practice workload daily.
"I thought he did a really good job and hopefully we'll just keep taking another step to continuing to increase and improve his role with our team," Saban said.
His role is as the most famous member of one of the nation's best backfield tandems. Alabama managed to coast through its first two games without Ingram and suspended defensive end Marcell Dareus, both of whom returned against Duke.
The Tide still leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense and total yards, while ranking second in rushing and passing.
In Ingram's absence, Trent Richardson averaged 6.9 yards a carry and ran for four touchdowns. He snared some of the publicity that normally would have gone to the Heisman winner, including a feature on ESPN's College GameDay and the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"I wasn't surprised by it at all, but I was very proud of the way he handled everything, the way he took over the games and made so many big plays to help our teams win games," Ingram said. "He's been ready for it, but it was just his turn.
"All the TV time he was getting, the Sports Illustrated cover, he deserves all that."
Richardson even had a 91-yard kick return for a touchdown against Duke. The presence of Ingram and Richardson together will certainly come in handy as the competition escalates in coming weeks.
It's the duo, after all, that helped power Alabama past Texas in the national championship game last season.
"It was great having 22 (Ingram) and 3 (Richardson) back there again," Tide guard Barrett Jones said. "It's a great feeling to block for that combination of running backs. It's great to know that if one of them gets tired and the other one goes in, there's not going to be much of a dropoff — or any dropoff."
Arkansas managed to contain Ingram last season, holding him to 50 yards. But Richardson had a 52-yard touchdown run and quarterback Greg McElroy threw for a season-high 291 yards passing and three touchdowns in the 35-7 win.
"We've got to try and slow him down and do a good job on first down," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We have to tackle well. I thought we defended him well a year ago. We were in gap control. We had our guys doing what we were supposed to do. We missed one tackle and gave them a huge run for a touchdown, but I thought we played them well defensively last year."
Ingram didn't show much rust after his layoff.
He displayed his burst on his first carry on the opening snap of the game, sprinting 48 yards. He flashed his moves by making two quick cutbacks to juke a Duke safety on a 17-yard touchdown run.
"The line just really got me to the second level, and I was one-on-one with the safety and had to make him miss in order to get in the end zone," Ingram said.
Ingram also lost his cool on a 1-yard touchdown plunge and was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
"I just dove on the pile, and they were just pulling on, twisting my legs a little bit," he said. "It was just the heat of the moment, the heat of the game. Emotions got the best of me. It was just the heat of the game. That's part of the game that we all love."