Alabama running back Mark Ingram had just finished his senior football season when things got confusing.
Coming from Flint, Mich., he was all about Big Ten schools such as Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa.
Then Alabama came into the picture. That’s when the waters muddied. Being a Midwest guy, the South wasn’t on Ingram’s radar. But when Alabama coach Nick Saban came calling, Ingram was ready to follow him back to Tuscaloosa.
Now, two years later, that decision is paying off for both.
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Ingram, the son of former New York Giant receiver bearing the same name, was named Offensive Player of the Week in the Southeastern Conference, following a career-high 150-yard performance in the 34-24 win over seventh-ranked Virginia Tech.
It was Ingram’s debut as the featured running back, now that Glen Coffee is a San Francisco 49er. As a freshman, he was the second-leading rusher behind Coffee with 728 yards on 143 carries. That didn’t mean Year 1 went without adversity.
A few big games early in the season led to a midseason slump. Saban chalked up the problems to “being a freshman” and the lack of maturity that typically comes with being a young contributor.
“I was getting frustrated not having that success that I thought I should have had, forcing stuff,” he said. “I think that year helps you make tremendous strides, and this year, I’m more confident and more patient. I think that freshman year helps you grow so much as a player.”
Ingram emerged from his first full offseason with a few new tricks. He now is more of a threat to catch the ball coming out of the backfield, as evident in his three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown Saturday night.
He also took shotgun snaps as the quarterback in the “Wildcat” offense installed in the preseason. The thought of trying something new on offense got Ingram going in August.
“I was excited,” he said. “It gives the offense a different look, and it gets our playmakers the ball in space.”
But, once again, August wasn’t entirely positive for Ingram.
His name surfaced in an investigation into a fishing trip taken with receiver Julio Jones that was paid for by Athens businessman Curtis Anderson. Ingram’s eligibility for the Virginia Tech game wasn’t certain until the Wednesday before kickoff, when the NCAA reinstated him and Jones, provided they donate the cost of the trip to charity.
That situation, Ingram said, wasn’t on his mind as he prepared for Virginia Tech, and he declined to comment on any further details of the case.
Even when the game finally arrived, the early performance was far from player of the week worthy. By the end of the first quarter, quarterback Greg McElroy was 9 yards ahead of Ingram, who ran five times for 14 yards in the opening period.
At halftime, he was up to 56 yards as the blocking improved and the field was opening up.
“The line did a great job of getting a head on a head and creating seams for us,” Ingram said. “We made the right reads and had some big runs in the second half.”
Ingram piled on more than half of his total yards (76) in the fourth quarter as Virginia Tech’s defense started wearing out. He scored first on a 6-yard rush, then on an 18-yard reception to finish off the Hokies.