Alabama RB Mark Ingram Jr.'s collegiate accomplishments demand respect.
He burst onto the scene in Tuscaloosa, scoring a team-high 12 touchdowns his freshman season before his record-setting 2009 campaign; in which he took home the university's first Heisman Trophy and proceeded to lead Alabama to its eighth national title since 1960.
At the age of 21, Ingram Jr. already has done things normally reserved for video games and, in what was likely no coincidence, recently added the title of "cover athlete" for the upcoming version of "NCAA Football 12" to his impressive résumé.
Now, with the NFL draft just days away, Ingram Jr. is preparing to enter the next stage of his athletic career.
His three years of experience and 3,261 rushing yards in Alabama's pro-style offense have helped Ingram Jr. solidify his standing as a projected first-round pick and as the type of player who his head coach, Nick Saban, thinks will succeed at the next level.
"I think Mark is a complete player," Saban told PFW. "I think he can play on every down, which is what people in the NFL are always looking for. He runs hard, has good vision, he catches the ball well and has really good hands, he's tough and he's a good blocker."
Saban would know, having coached at both levels, as would Pro Football Weekly draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki who projects Ingram Jr. as a mid-to-late first-round pick. In PFW's 2011 Draft Preview book, Nawrocki says Ingram is "a well-built, motivated, productive workhorse who was slowed by injury as a junior. Does not have the flash, speed or suddenness of elite playmakers, but is a steady, solid bellcow with the type of hard-nosed, competitive mentality to handle 20 carries per game at the next level and consistently move the chains."
Even though the Flint, Mich., native is expected to be the first running back to come off the board, he didn't truly make the decision to forgo his senior year until he discussed it with his family, including his dad, former NFL WR Mark Ingram Sr.
Although he has served multiple stints in prison, Ingram Sr. — who spent 10 seasons in the NFL from 1987-96 and was part of the Giants' Super Bowl championship team following the '90 season — always has been a strong presence in his son's life.
He introduced Ingram Jr. to the game as a young child. As his son got older, Ingram Sr. began bringing him to Dolphins workouts, where the youngster had the chance to run drills and learn techniques from the likes of CB Troy Vincent and SS Louis Oliver.
"I always told him to do his best at whatever he put his energy toward," Ingram Sr. told PFW from FCI Beaumont Low prison in Beaumont, Texas, where he is in the midst of a nearly 10-year prison sentence following a money laundering and bank fraud conviction in 2005. "He's always practiced and prepared, and he has had the passion to be the best at whatever he set his sights on, from golf, to football, basketball and the classroom."
There's no doubt that Ingram Jr.'s passion has helped him plenty along the way. It helped him achieve his goal of becoming an All-State performer after switching high schools before his senior year and, at the collegiate level, it has given him an edge that has helped him become one of the NCAA's most productive backs.
Although, growing up with a father that played in the NFL didn't hurt.
"I had a dad that played pro football, so what he taught me was a little bit advanced as opposed to what other kids were learning just because my dad had been there before and played on another level," Ingram Jr. explained. "He definitely helped me in my developmental stages. Just playing football and knowing how to work hard. Other kids, back in the summer, they'd be at the pool and I'd be up running, doing drills and running bleachers. He instilled that in me."
It also didn't hurt that Ingram Sr. had developed a relationship with Saban, who was a defensive coach at Michigan State when the elder Ingram played at the university. While their friendship might have helped secure Ingram Jr.'s opportunity to play at Alabama, he deserves all of the credit for what he has been able to accomplish.
Ingram Jr. made an immediate impact upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa in '08. He rushed for 96 yards in his first collegiate game and was a freshman All-SEC selection by league coaches after rushing for 728 yards and 12 touchdowns on 143 carries.
His first collegiate loss came in SEC championship loss to Florida, but for the Ingram family, that game had a greater meaning.
That game ultimately would become the last collegiate game Ingram Sr. would see his son play. Because of his '05 conviction, Ingram Sr. was scheduled to begin his prison sentence in December of '08. Free on bail, he failed to surrender after his request for the sentence to begin after Alabama's Sugar Bowl game was denied. He was arrested in a Michigan motel on Jan. 2, 2009, hours before the Crimson Tide lost to Utah, 31-17.
Ingram Sr.'s decision not to surrender ultimately added 27 months to his sentence, but it was a choice the former NFL star said he would make again.
"With the sentence that was imposed I knew that this would be the last time I would have the chance to see Mark play as a collegiate player, and that it would be (a) long time before I would have the opportunity to see him play again," he said. "So, yes, without hesitation I would make the same decision."
What Ingram Sr. missed the following season turned out to be legendary.
Ingram Jr. got the starting nod in the Crimson Tide's season opener in '09, the first start of his collegiate career, and never looked back. He cruised through the regular season, rushing for 140 yards or more in six of 13 games His finished the season with 1,658 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns, eventually edging out Stanford RB Toby Gerhart by 28 votes for the Heisman Trophy. It was the closest Heisman vote in the award's long history.
"I think everybody wants to win the Heisman," Ingram Jr. said. "Any player that has ever played football has a dream of winning the Heisman. Did I think it would happen like it did? No not necessarily. I was just putting together good game after good game. The whole team was playing well."
He would go on to be named Offensive MVP in Alabama's BCS championship game victory over Texas, rushing for 116 yards and two scores in a 37-21 win.
Ingram Sr. was unable to take part in the hype and festivities that went along with his son's historic season. But he kept in touch with Ingram Jr., through it all, helping as much as he could along the way.
"I've always been Mark's life coach," Ingram Sr. said. "Everything from success to failure I've shared with Mark and have expressed to him that success is a journey, not a one-time deal, and with success comes failure, and from those failures we should learn from them to make us better players and better people."
That advice came into play the following year.
Just days before the start of the '10 season, Ingram Jr. suffered a left knee injury following a horse-collar tackle in practice. It would require arthroscopic surgery, keeping him off the field for the first two games.
"It was frustrating," Ingram Jr. said. "I was probably looking the best I've ever looked and to suffer an injury before the game was unfortunate. But it's football. Things like that happen."
Ingram Jr. returned in Week Three, recording 308 combined rushing yards in his first two games back, but saw only 14 carries per contest the rest of the way and never again rushed for more than 100 yards in a game.
Sophomore RB Trent Richardson had impressed, earning a substantial amount of carries the rest of the campaign. Ingram Jr. said he had no problem splitting carries and, in a sign of his true character, discussed his willingness to teach and encourage his replacement-to-be.
Richardson praised Ingram Jr. not only for the advice he offered on the field, but for helping him become a better all-around person. He said Ingram Jr. was like an uncle to his kids [figuratively] and displayed a work ethic rarely seen at the collegiate level.
"He has always been a hard worker," Richardson said. "Day in and day out, he's always going to be the best at what he's doing. He's a very competitive person. He's never going to let anybody outdo him."
Following a disappointing season that saw Ingram Jr. play at less than 100 percent for the first half of the slate and his team suffer three losses, he declared for the NFL draft in early January.
Questions concerning the lasting impact of the knee injury could hurt Ingram Jr.'s draft stock, although both he and his trainer, Wyatt Harris, have said that the knee is a nonissue. There has been speculation that teams such as the Patriots, who might wish to draft Ingram Jr., could be feeding false information to the media in hopes of having him fall into their laps.
As for Ingram, all he can do is wait. He continues to work out with Harris at Sonic Boom Speed Conditioning and Strength Training Academy in New Orleans and has said he is eagerly awaiting Draft Day.
"You hear a lot of things but nobody really knows until the day of," Ingram Jr. said "I hear a lot of different things from a lot of different teams. Nobody really knows what's the truth and what's not."
So, as Ingram Jr. waits, so will his father, who said he continues to speak with his son about four times per week.
"I told (him) not to lose focus of the goal," Ingram Sr. said. "Playing professional football is an honor, and should be respected. I told him that no matter where he is drafted he should be honored and give that team and that city the best Mark Ingram (he) can give them.
"I truly believe that if Mark stays healthy his best football is still in front of him. I'm not surprised by his success. However, I am really and truly proud of what he has accomplished."
Having grown up idolizing a father that played professional football, Ingram Jr. is now just days away from achieving his dream.
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