Saints running back Mark Ingram (28) reacts after picking up yardage against… (Troy Taormina / US Presswire )
Two of the past 11 Heisman Trophy winners were running backs, and both have played for the New Orleans Saints — Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram. Bush doesn't have that stiff-armed statuette anymore. Ingram acts as if he never had one in the first place.
"You wouldn't know it," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Ingram's Heisman. "The way he comes out and works, wants to be part of the team, enjoys practices, you would never know it."
Vilma wasn't comparing Ingram to Bush, who this summer signed as free agent with Miami. But it's increasingly clear that these are two very different backs. Whereas Bush has spectacular speed and tends to bounce runs outside, the rookie Ingram is a decisive inside runner who has good speed but isn't going to leave vapor trails.
In a numerological twist, the Saints, the 28th-ranked rushing team, selected Alabama's Ingram 28th overall last spring, making him the only running back selected in the first round. It was also the 28th pick when the New York Giants selected his father, longtime NFL receiver Mark Ingram Sr., 24 years earlier.
The Saints might have taken the younger Ingram earlier, but they were surprised to see California defensive end Cameron Jordan still around when they picked at 24. Unwilling to pass on Jordan, they traded back into the round and took Ingram four spots later. (A bit more on that decision in a moment.)
New Orleans is loaded at running back, with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and former San Diego standout Darren Sproles sharing carries with Ingram, and yet the rookie has clearly impressed the right people.
Asked if Ingram has measured up to expectations so far, Coach Sean Payton didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," said Payton, who is conducting practices in Oxnard this week as the Saints prepare for Sunday's exhibition game at Oakland. "You're talking about power, speed. … He runs with good pad level. The leaky yardage for him is forward, not backward. You never know until you get him in camp, but he's been impressive."
That surfaced in the Saints' preseason opener against San Francisco, when he took a handoff on a draw, ran up the middle, spun away from a defender and scored a 14-yard touchdown. Against Houston the next week, on fourth and goal from the 1, Ingram reached the end zone with a dive over the top … but the play was nullified because the Saints had called a timeout.
Not to worry, Ingram scored on the next play, churning his way across the goal line.
"He's a pretty quiet, unassuming guy," quarterback Drew Brees said of Ingram, "but you can see the fire that burns inside of him by the way he carries the ball. He's confident in his abilities, but he won't tell you that vocally, he'll show you."
Veteran safety Roman Harper got a feel for Ingram's intensity early in camp, in the first full-contact practice. The two collided at the two-yard line and the rookie pushed his way across for a touchdown.
Harper later said he didn't want to cut Ingram's legs from under him, but also conceded it probably would have been a touchdown either way.
Since 1998, four running backs have won the Heisman, and three of them (Bush, Ingram and Ricky Williams) have played for the Saints. The fourth, Ron Dayne, played for the Giants, Broncos and Texans.
Had the Saints not selected Ingram — or if another team had taken him after New Orleans let him slide past 24 — Payton would have had to answer to his young son, who had his heart set on seeing the Crimson Tide star in black and gold.
In a since-deleted Youtube video that made the rounds after the draft, Payton is backstage at a New Orleans concert — "The Molly Ringwalds" — and tells of how his son was disappointed until the Saints finally called Ingram's name.
"It's easy to be a Mark Ingram fan," the coach said. "When you're young, and the headliners in college football are the running backs, the quarterbacks, the Heisman Trophy winners, and he came decorated that way."
Ingram, for one, appreciated any additional pressure Payton's son provided, saying: "It's good to know I've got some love in the family."
As for the Heisman?
"I'm proud I won it," Ingram said. "But that trophy doesn't guarantee me any success at this level."
Instead of wearing that accomplishment on his sleeve, Ingram is perfectly satisfied to wear on his chest — what else? — No. 28.