TUSCALOOSA _ University of Alabama junior running back Mark Ingram took another step toward playing this week when he practiced in pads for the first time since having arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago.
For the second straight day, the Heisman Trophy winner led the running backs through practice and didn't have any setbacks.
"Mark's doing great," sophomore running back Trent Richardson said Tuesday evening. "He doesn't look like he's had surgery or anything happened to him.
"I'm very excited he came back. I (texted) him last night, 'Glad to have you back, big bro.' There's nothing like having him in the backfield."
Nick Saban has steadfastly said that Ingram's role Saturday against Duke will depend on what he's able to do during practices, although the coach will also have to balance that against keeping him fresh for the following three games: at No. 12 Arkansas, vs. No. 10 Florida and at No. 13 South Carolina.
So far, Richardson has been able to fill Ingram's role without any major bumps in the road.
"That's a real good compliment," Richardson said. "It's an honor just to be mentioned with Mark. He had a big role for our team last year, so to fill his shoes and take up the slack and not lose a step, and nobody else sees that we are, I think we're doing pretty good."
Richardson and Eddie Lacy have both recorded 100-yard performances, with Richardson averaging 16 carries for 105.0 yards per game (6.6 per carry). In comparison, Ingram averaged roughly 19 carries per game last season.
"I think the great thing about having those two guys is they're kind of the same guy," junior center William Vlachos said. "They look similar, they run similar. Mark has a little bit more experience, but other than that we don't have a thunder-and-lightning one-two punch we have kind of thunder-and-thunder. They're both strong, power backs who make great reads, have strength and have really great speed. That's kind of what our offense is focused around, those guys having success. They probably don't even need an offense line, really. They're that good.
"Trent's extremely good ad he works just like Mark works. They never get complacent, they never let up on the pedal. The sky's the limit for both of them."
The hit's the thing
Although Richardson accumulated 207 all-purpose yards against Penn State, he was prouder of his block up upend a defensive lineman than anything he did with the ball.
"I actually I got up and looked at the screen and was, 'I did all that?'" he said, smiling.
Richardson made the blitz pickup on senior H-back Preston Dial's 14-yard touchdown catch, when his low hit basically flipped junior defensive tackle Devon Still (6-foot-5, 311 pounds) on his head. They've shown it more in the film room than his touchdown carry when he essentially carried a defender into the end zone
"That's what we take pride in, in our running back film room," Richardson said. "We can run the ball, everyone knows we can run, but to block means more to us."
Junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw and senior left tackle James Carpenter, who have ankle sprains, took more reps with their respective first units Tuesday, increasing the likelihood that they'll play at Duke. Regardless, though, redshirt freshman Ed Stinson appears poised to play significant minutes again at Jack linebacker.
Junior linebacker Chris Jordan also had the pads on, but split time with teammates.
True freshman cornerback DeMarcus Milliner (hamstring) worked with the first unit, but junior DeQuan Menzie was out and believed to be one of a couple of players under the weather. Junior Phelon Jones was at the star position in nickel coverage.
Cutcliffe calls for some more blue
Duke coach David Cutcliffe called on the hometown fans to display their blue Friday when the Alabama faithful start rolling into Durham, N.C. He didn't have to look far for a comparison for what football means to the Crimson Tide.
"Well, what I know is that before I even came here, people who signed on with Duke basketball expected to win," he said. "After seeing how Coach K runs his program from somewhat outside, but a little closer, I think there are a lot of parallels to the commitment that's demanded of the program. Two great programs in different sports, but very similar traditions."
Cutcliffe graduated from Alabama in 1976 and worked as an undergraduate assistant coach for Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. The still carries in his wallet a newspaper clipping and ticket stub from the 1981 game against Auburn when Bryant notched his record-setting 315th victory.
"They have a lot of players on their squad from Alabama, and those kids understand what their responsibility is," he said "The expectation of football and the responsibility is far greater than most folks think. I'm from there, but my hats off to the faithful fans, and that's a lot of people over a long period of time. It's pretty amazing that it is something that's passed down, and that the RVs coming rolling into town. That's a wonderful part of the Alabama program.
"What's most impressive is that they have revived the expectation of the player. The expectation was to compete for national championships, not some times, but all the time."
Damion Square was again lined up with the first unit at defensive end alongside Josh Chapman and Marcell Dareus. Although Alabama primarily went with a four-man line against Penn State, more speed and pursuit appear to be a priority against Duke's spread offense. Kerry Murphy was lined up at end with Nick Gentry at nose tackle on the second unit.
Duke is 0-10 against teams ranked first in the Associated Press poll. This will be just the third time the Blue Devils will host a No. 1 team, losing to Pitt in 1937, 10-0, and Florida in 1993, 45-7. Duke is 2-1 at home against the reigning national champions (3-8 overall), but the most recent win was in 1952 (Tennessee).
Ingram will be the 11th Heisman Trophy winner Duke has played. The Blue Devils are 0-2 against players who had already won the award, 4-17 overall. The most recent win was 16-12 over George Rogers and South Carolina in 1978, two years before he won the trophy.
Vlachos on the formation when tackles D.J. Fluker and James Carpenter line up next to each other: "I wouldn't want to be the other-color jersey against those two. That's some weight coming at you. D.J. does a good job with that, it obviously shows how much they trust him to flip him over like that, be in a different stance and things like that. It can be a challenge for new guys."