Published September 29, 2010
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Mark Ingram certainly knows how to make a dramatic entrance.
No. 1 Alabama's tailback has quickly and emphatically stiff-armed his way back into an early Heisman Trophy conversation that mostly excluded him while he was sidelined for the first two games with a knee injury.
Remember Ingram? He won it last year. Last he checked, the trophy was on his mother's kitchen table in Michigan.
Ingram is a long way from delivering another Heisman to the household decor, but he also has returned with the same big-play, big-game flair that brought him the school's first.
It helps to play on some of college football's biggest regular-season stages. He had 157 yards at No. 15 Arkansas last weekend, including an impressive 54-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a late score to give Alabama a 24-20 victory.
He'll get another national showcase Saturday night when Alabama (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 7 Florida (4-0, 2-0). Ingram's consistent refrain the past two seasons has been he's worrying about wins, not awards.
"It's an honor, but at the same time my main focus is going out every single day at practice and becoming a better player, putting myself in a situation where I could have success to help this team win games," he said. "Everything else is secondary. Everything else will take care of itself."
Tide guard Barrett Jones said Ingram hardly needs the Heisman as incentive.
"Mark always seems motivated to me," Jones said. "He always runs extremely hard. I've never watched a game film and thought, 'Man, Mark didn't look motivated.' He always runs like he's got something to prove. I think that's a pretty awesome quality considering he did win the Heisman Trophy last year and he still runs like that. It says a lot about his character."
Ingram has come up huge in games like this in the past. He averaged 157 yards rushing against Top 25 teams last season, with nine touchdowns.
He might have wrapped up the Heisman against the Gators in the SEC championship game last season. Ingram rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns and had a 69-yard catch.
He emerged as a legitimate candidate with a 246-yard rushing effort against next week's opponent, No. 19 South Carolina. That was the seventh game in 2009 — he missed one with an injury — so in a sense he's already got a head-start on himself along the Heisman campaign trail.
"I don't know if the Heisman's on his mind right now," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "Obviously that's an award that's won in the second half of the season. I think that he's had a great offseason. I think he's had a great couple of weeks coming back off the injury. I know he's ready to continue to progress and improve and continue to put up big numbers for us."
The Gators have made putting up big numbers hard for any back so far. They've given up only one touchdown on the ground, but now face Ingram and Alabama's tailback 1A Trent Richardson.
"He's a great player," Florida linebacker Brandon Hicks said of Ingram. "He takes every play like it's his last. His work ethic definitely shows on the field. He goes hard every single play. Not too many running backs have the ability and physical strength and speed that he has to work hard and go every play.
"As a defense, it's our job to shut that down. He can't win the game by himself."
The Gator defenders also know it's hard enough to bring down the 5-foot-10, 215-pound, leg-churning dynamo with one man, much less an outstretched arm. Ingram has gotten 43 percent of his yards (144 total) rushing and receiving after contact.
"Arm tackling isn't good," Hicks said. "He's a running back you can't take down with one arm. He's too strong, he's too big for that. That's not going to happen."
Ingram seemed in instant 2009 form since his return following arthroscopic knee surgery on opening week. He became the first Football Bowl Subdivision player to gain 150 yards on single-digit carries in the last five years against Duke, running nine times for 151 yards.
But that was Duke. Arkansas was a top-10 matchup that went down to the wire and drew the CBS' highest rating for a regular season college football game in seven years. Chances are, some Heisman voters were among that audience when Ingram carried three straight times — twice out of the wildcat formation — and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 3:18 to play.
Ingram said he was "100 percent zoned in" during that sequence, and said he had a similar focus in last year's South Carolina game.
"Whenever you have the opportunity to take over a game, have a chance to impact the team and give your team a little burst or spark, I thrive on that," Ingram said.