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There are more than a few unlikely career trajectories in the long history of the Heisman Trophy (see: Newton, Cam), but for a guy who was never seriously injured, suspended or in anyone's doghouse, Alabama running back Mark Ingram is one of very few who leaves something of a vague legacy on his own team. For his sophomore season alone, Ingram deserves to go down as the best running back ever to come through Tuscaloosa, but with his decision today to skip his senior season for the NFL Draft – along with 2008 classmates Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus – there's still some question of what might have been if he hadn't spent his last season as merely "1a" in a tag-team backfield.
In 2009, Ingram turned in the best season by any running back – probably any offensive player at any position – in Alabama history, on one of the best teams, churning out nine 100-yard games on the ground, 20 touchdowns and almost 2,000 total yards en route to the school's only Heisman Trophy and, a month later, its umpteenth national championship. Against teams that finished the season in the top 20, Ingram delivered with 185 total yards against Virginia Tech, 188 against Ole Miss, 174 against LSU, 189 (with three touchdowns) against Florida in the SEC Championship and 128 with another pair of scores in the BCS title game.
On either side of his masterpiece, though, Ingram was really just another solid running back with a high ceiling on any given afternoon: His rushing total in '09 alone was more than he produced in 2008 (splitting time with Glen Coffee) and 2010 (splitting time with Trent Richardson) combined. After a fast comeback from preseason knee surgery in September, Ingram didn't crack 100 yards on the ground in any of his last nine games, and didn't come in for any postseason accolades. As arrogant as the suggestion seemed before the year, Richardson really was just as good as the player who'd been deemed the "most outstanding" in the country a year earlier – and his rushing total slightly decreased from his freshman campaign, too, also on significantly fewer carries.
In reality, 'Bama became more of a passing team in 2010 than perhaps it's ever been, largely to take advantage of its other draft-bound star on offense, receiver Julio Jones, who set single-season records for catches (78) and yards (1,133) on his way out. Jones' career in Tuscaloosa was a mirror image of Ingram's: A spectacular start as a freshman, a sophomore slump due in part to injuries, and a rally to fulfill his staggering potential in year three. Maybe that's just a coincidence.
But Alabama's record over the last three years certainly isn't. Along with their third draft-bound classmate, All-SEC defensive end Marcell Dareus – forever cemented in Crimson Tide lore both for knocking Colt McCoy out of last year's BCS Championship Game on the opening series, then returning a fluky interception for a touchdown that effectively sealed the title just before the half – Ingram and Jones joined a disillusioned program coming off back-to-back 6-6 seasons and Independence Bowls. They leave it with a school-record 36 wins in three years, 14 weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation and a BCS championship. There's no second-guessing that.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.