TUSCALOOSA |When it comes to running backs, University of Alabama sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower usually doesn't pause, even when asked a question about how to attack one.
Sophomore Mark Ingram, though, is not just any running back, especially considering the driving nature of his 5-foot-10, 212-pound frame. Not only did it key his 728-yard freshman season, but made him the Crimson Tide's preferred ball carrier near the goal-line.
"What I do, is jump on his back," Hightower said. "I can't bend my knees enough to get low enough to hit him. He's too strong to try and bulldozer him. So I just try and jump on his back during practice, hold him up until I get some help over there."
Monday afternoon, when Coach Nick Saban unveiled the Crimson Tide's initial depth chart for the 2009--10 season, there were no surprises at the running back position where Ingram was listed first among four names - those who will likely take nearly every hand-off this season.
Behind him, junior Terry Grant and senior Roy Upchurch shared the No. 2 spot, with Trent Richardson the first name Saban mentioned when asked about what kind of impact the true freshmen might make this season.
Ingram's impact will likely depend on how well he completes the transition from spot player - with his 12 rushing touchdowns setting an Alabama freshman record last season - to every-down running back. Granted, he took 143 hand-offs in 14 games in 2008, but most of the workload went to Glen Coffee (233 carries, 1,417 yards).
"I just have to be more consistent, as far as making my reads on a regular basis and picking up pass protection, being the best player I can be," Ingram said last week.
As for the physical side of it, he added: "You're going to take few extra hits, but as long as you take care of your body I think you'll be all right."
The four-deep also signaled one other important facet, in addition to the starter, that like usual Saban won't hesitate to insert someone into the game, whether for fresh legs, a third-down back or change of pace. He might give each running back a different role.
Ask the Tide players and their own scouting reports are remarkably consistent: Upchurch is explosive; Grant is the speed guy; Richardson is the up-and-comer.
"Each one of us has something different to offer," Ingram said. "I think as a running back corps we're going to be pretty good.
"I like to do everything, run between tackles, run outside, break big runs, run short yardage, run routes, catch passes. I just consider myself an all-around back."
Yet running back was the position with the most uncertainly during fall camp.
Sophomore Jermaine Griffin was lost for the season with a knee injury. Upchurch had what he called a groin "tweak," but is back practicing with the team after missing the second of two scrimmages. Richardson sustained a sprained shoulder during the most recent scrimmage, adding injury to insult (not the other way around) after fumbling on the same play.
He and standout sophomore receiver Julio Jones have been investigated by the university for enjoying an offseason fishing trip with a non-booster. Although the school has not reported any violations, it has been in contact with the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Southeastern Conference and the matter has yet to be resolved mere days before the season opener.
Meanwhile, the player to take advantage was Grant, even though he went from 892 yards on 180 carries in 2007 to just 88 yards off 35 hand-offs last season. Teammates have been quietly praising his work ethic, while Hightower added "He'll run by you in a blink."
"Terry Grant has done an outstanding job, and did a very good job last year," Saban said. "I think he handled an adverse circumstance last year on our team as a guy who had gotten hurt and coming back from that injury sort of had some guys pass him up that he probably didn't count on. … Instead of going into a shell and accepting that circumstance he has worked as hard as anybody on our team and been as positive in energy and attitude as anyone on our team.
"We feel like both (Ingram and Grant) can be starters. He has speed and is a space player, and hopefully we can get him the ball so that he can make plays and give us another weapon on offense."
So the pecking order is set for now, with each of the four having something to prove. But against Virginia Tech, it appears that Ingram will get the first shot, and everyone already knows how tough he can be to stop.
"Every running back is going to have his own style," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "I think that it's something that's going to develop over time and Mark's going to have a lot of reps to do that. Mark's going to bring his own physical style to the table. He might be a little quicker and a lot more powerful (than Coffee). He's going to be a good runner between the tackles."