TUSCALOOSA _ University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram has finally run into something that can cause him trouble on the football field: Pollen. Considering Tuscaloosa has been covered by the fine yellow powder for more than a week, spring practices haven't been much fun.
"Terrible," Ingram said. "My allergies are killing me right now."
Of course, if Ingram was actually having trouble with something a little more tangible Nick Saban could simply inset Trent Richardson to give him a break.
"We don't lose a step, when I come out he comes in," Ingram said. "He's strong, powerful, has a lot of speed and he's becoming smarter each and every day. He's learning more about the offense, about the defensive fronts and pass protections."
That has to be slightly terrifying for opponents. As a sophomore, Ingram won Alabama's first Heisman Trophy and set the Crimson Tide's single rushing record with 1,658 yards (Bobby Humphrey, 1,471 as a sophomore in 1986).
Combined, he and Richardson had 416 carries for 2,409 yards (5.79 average) and 25 touchdowns. They also caught 48 passes for 460 yards and had three receiving touchdowns.
Imagine what they could potentially do as an encore. Neither is 21 yet, linebacker Dont'a Hightower is already on the record as saying he doesn't know how defenses will be able to game plan to stop both of them and even Saban was asked this week if they might be the best running back combination in college football.
"If they both played to their capability they would have to be considered for that sort of honor," Saban said. "They both have the ability to do it, they both work hard, have had good springs, and we're hopeful they can stay healthy and have very productive years so they can be considered that kind of dynamic duo, I'll call them."
Based on last year's stats, there's no way they couldn't be. Here's how they compare to the rest of the SEC West among returning running backs:
SEC West Alabama: Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson 1,658/751 2,409 Auburn: Onterio McCalebb/Mario Fannin 565/285 850 Arkansas: Broderick Green/Dennis Johnson 442/342 784 Ole Miss: Brandon Bolden/Rodney Scott 614/138 752 Mississippi State: Christian Ducre (FB)/Robert Elliott 263/221 484 LSU: Stevan Ridley (FB)/Richard Murphy 180/10 190
LSU's numbers are particularly interesting in that the two leading returning rushers are quarterbacks (Russell Shepard/Jordan Jefferson 277/171 for 448).
There's more returning running back depth in the SEC East, but even the best tandem trailed the Tide's by more than 1,000 rushing yards:
SEC East Florida: Jeffrey Demps/Chris Rainey 745/575 1,320 Georgia: Washaun Ealey/Caeb King 717/594 1,311 Vanderbilt: Warren Norman/Zac Stacy 783/478 1,261 Kentucky: Derrick Locke/Moncell Allen 907/228 1,135 (WR Randall Cobb with 573) South Carolina: Kenny Miles/Brian Maddox 626/307 933 Tennessee: David Oku/Tauren Poole 94/85 179 (Bryce Brown with 460 yards left team)
Compared to the rest of the nation, Alabama's numbers still hold up. Even among teams that had a 1,500-yard ball carrier last year who is returning, none has that proven second running back with comparable numbers to Richardson's.
National leaders Pittsburgh: Dion Lewis/Ray Graham 1,799/349 2,148 Virginia Tech: Ryan Williams/Josh Oglesby 1,655/355 2,010 Oregon: LaMichael James/Kenjon Barbner 1,546/366 1,912 (QB Jeremiah Masoli had 668) Wisconsin: John Clay/Montee Ball 1,517/391 1,908 UTEP: Donald Buckram/Jason Williams 1,594/126 1,720
Notable also-rans Temple: Bernard Pierce/Matt Brown 1,361/529 1,890 Air Force: Jared Tew/Asher Clark, 970/865 1,835 Nevada: Vai Taua/Lampford Mark 1,345/376 1,721 (Note: QB Colin Kaepernick had 1,183) West Virginia: Noel Devine/Ryan Clarke (FB) 1,465/250 1,715 Northern Illinois: Chad Spann/Meco Brown 1,038/654 1,692 Boston College: Montel Harris/Josh Haden 1,457/213 1,670 Texas A&M: Christine Michael/Cyrus Gray 844/757 1,601 Oregon State: Jacquizz Rodgers/Jovan Stevenson 1,440/137 1,577 (WR James Rogers had 303) Colorado State: Leonard Mason/John Mosure 766/650 1,416 Ohio State: Daneil Herron/Brandon Saine 600/739 1,339 (QB Terrelle Pryor had 779) North Carolina: Shaun Draughn/Ryan Houston 567/713 1,280
Statistically speaking, the best running back combination in recent SEC history was Darren McFadden (1,830 yards) and Felix Jones (1,162), who combined for 2,992 rushing yards in 2007. That blew away the numbers posted Auburn's Carnell Williams (1,165) and Ronnie Brown (913) in 2004, but all four of those players were NFL first-round draft picks.
With Alabama expected to aim for closer to a 50/50 distribution split in handoffs this season it may be harder for Ingram to defend the Heisman, but easier for the Tide to post even better rushing numbers for the third straight season. In 2008, when Ingram was Glen Coffee's backup, they combined for 2,111 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
"I don't feel any pressure at all," Ingram said.
There's also strong competition for the third running back spot between Eddie Lacy, Demetrius Goode and Jeramie Giffin, and possibly become the next guy.
"Eddie, real quick, lots of power," Ingram said. "He's a bigger than all of us, about 6-2, me and Trent are only about 5-10. He's a tall back so that's a different look. Goode, he's a lighter back, real quick, real fast. He's real instinctive. Griff's bigger than everybody, he's a bruiser. But once he gets his knee back right he should be all right."
In the meantime, the biggest question may be how long will it take before we see Ingram and Richardson in the same backfield?
"Not yet, but hopefully that will come along soon," Ingram said.