TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Greg McElroy had just thrown an interception in the end zone two weeks ago at Arkansas when Mark Ingram’s instincts took over.
Stalking Razorback Andru Stewart from afar, Alabama’s contact-loving running back delivered a pop that sent the defensive back to the turf in a hurry. A safety in high school, Ingram seeks to initiate contact while running the ball, too.
In the punish or be punished world of running backs, Ingram and the rest of the Alabama running backs prefer a proactive approach.
“It’s just the mentality of the position,” he said. “I don’t want to get hit. I don’t want nobody to hit me. I want to hit them first and just send a message to them that I don’t want them to tackle me anymore. At the end of the play when I’m getting corralled and I have nowhere to go, I’m trying to send a message.”
That will be no different when the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) play at No. 19 South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, when it will see another physical back in Marcus Lattimore. According to published reports, Lattimore’s 198-yard game against Georgia included breaking 29 tackles and running for 129 yards after contact.
Ingram and backup Trent Richardson, however, have more experience bulling through would-be tacklers than the Gamecocks’ true-freshman star.
As a sophomore last season, 54 percent of Ingram’s 1,992 total yards came after contact. This year, the percentage is down to 41.1 percent of his 401 rushing and receiving yards coming after contact, but that’s not because he is less willing to take a blow.
Even when the sideline becomes a factor, Ingram looks for someone to run over. He did just that on his first run of the season against Duke when he plowed over a Blue Devils defender who appeared to think Ingram would step out of bounds first. Then against Arkansas, Ingram’s first touchdown came after a stiff arm and a 10-yard tightrope act along the sideline before crossing the goal line.
Of Richardson’s 545 running and receiving yards, 36.4 percent came after absorbing the first blow. The sophomore regularly carries piles of defenders on his back for a few extra yards because of his extraordinary lower body strength.
The unwillingness to take the conservative way out of a running play extends to Tide quarterback Greg McElroy too.
When receivers are covered down field, the senior is showing no hesitation when taking off with the ball. And that doesn’t mean ducking down when defenders close in.
“Sliding just feels like, to me, a sign of weakness,” McElroy said. “I guess that’s just my ego or whatever. I probably need to do it for my safety and for my team’s sake. It’s probably not the smartest thing to do.”
Sliding isn’t addressed in practice since quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be hit in the first place, so the need to get down on the turf early isn’t there. But after taking a few shots in recent weeks, McElroy said he feels extra sore, so the hook slide he mastered as a baseball player might sneak into his football playbook.
In South Carolina, quarterback Stephen Garcia’s decision not to slide has resulted in crushing turnovers. He fumbled twice against Auburn two weeks ago and was sent to the bench as a result.
“In my 30 years of coaching quarterbacks, I never taught one to slide feet first,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told reporters in Columbia. “We taught our guys to protect themselves, get what you can and get down. … Hopefully, Stephen can do that. I don’t know if he can or not, to be honest, because he hasn’t changed yet. Maybe we’ve done a poor job coaching him not to go in with his head down and eyes closed. We’ve emphasized it as much as we can. Hopefully, he’ll protect the ball when he runs.”