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August 12, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ It seems beyond ridiculous that sophomore running back Trent Richardson is getting asked if he's the best running back at the University of Alabama, although that's more a compliment to him than anything.
For the record, Richardson says no, it's Mark Ingram, who just set the Crimson Tide career record for single-season rushing yards and won the program's first Heisman Trophy.
Ingram, meanwhile, diplomatically says it's for other people to decide.
"We compete every single day," the junior said. "He makes me better. I make him better. It's just nothing but an advantage to our team just to have a one-two punch like that because when I'm in there I'm fresh, he comes in he's fresh. We're both making plays, both being explosive. It's nothing but an advantage to our team.
"He pushes me, I push him. We both get better by it. He's great. He's like a little brother to me."
Perhaps a better question is after Ingram who's the best running back in the Southeastern Conference?
There's a lot of evidence to suggest that it may indeed be the man who wears No. 3 for the Crimson Tide, beginning with last year's final statistics.
Here were the top 10 SEC rushing leaders, based on average yards per game:
Name-School, Year, Carries, Yards, Game average
1. Anthony Dixon-MS Sr 257 1391 126.5
2. Mark Ingram-UA So 271 1658 118.4
3. Ben Tate-AU Sr 263 1362 104.8
4. M. Hardesty-UT Sr 282 1345 103.5
5. D. McCluster-UM Sr 181 1169 89.9
6. Derrick Locke-UK Jr 195 907 75.6
7. Warren Norman-VU Fr 145 783 65.2
8. Tim Tebow-UF Sr 217 910 65.0
9. Caleb King-UG So 114 594 59.4
10. T. Richardson-UA Fr 145 751 53.6
Of those 10, five are back for this season, with Ingram the lone player from the top five.
During recent polling, SEC coaches named Ingram preseason first-team All-SEC along with Kentucky's Locke, and Florida's Jeff Damps on the second-team with Richardson.
More telling was the media vote a few days later. Out of the 177 ballots cast, Ingram came closest to being a unanimous selection with 165 votes. Joining him on the first-team was his backup, Richardson with 69 votes.
"It was big," Richardson said.
"I think he should be preseason All-SEC, All-American, All-Everything on every award, because he's a great player," Ingram said about the honor. "He's explosive. He's dynamic. He's getting smarter as a student of the game every day. I'm trying to teach him some of the things I know. He's getting better and he's improving every single day.
"It'll be scary to see when he reaches his full potential what he'll be capable of doing."
Behind Richardson, Locke was on the second-team with 40 votes and Auburn's Mario Fannin tabbed 22. Vanderbilt's Norman, who broke the SEC freshman record for all-purpose yards with 1,941, made second-team as a return specialist.
Locke's biggest advantage is that he's really not the focal point of the Kentucky offense thanks to wide receiver/quarterback/kick returner Randall Cobb, who gained 1,762 yards last year by rushing (573), receiving (447), passing (89), and returns (653), while scoring 15 touchdowns.
"He's now trying to convince me that he can play DB," said new coach Joker Phillips, who promised that Cobb "will be the sorest guy in the league" from all the ways he'll be used.
That leaves Locke as more of the workhorse, and for him to be considered one of the best running backs in the conference the senior needs to top the 1,000-yard barrier.
"I feel like that's something that has to happen," Locke said. "You have to get 1,000 yards if you want to be that guy who gets All-SEC, or preaseason coaches' poll, whatever. You can't be that if you don't have 1,000 yards. With the playmakers we have around now I don't think that's going to be hard to get.
"I know it's not going to be easy to get, but with my ability and my trust in coaches, the coaching staff, our players and our line, I think I should get that, no doubt about it."
Although the conference has been moving away from traditional running attacks, and the spread becomes more popular, five players reached 1,000 rushing yards last season - which is about average of late. There were four in 2008, seven in 2007 and three the previous year.
However, there are a number of reasons to believe Richardson can hit also that milestone despite coming off the bench.
1) Ingram's example
As a true freshman, Ingram spelled Glenn Coffee and accumulated 728 rushing yards on 143 carries and scored a team-high 12 touchdowns. He went from averaging 5.1 per carry to 6.1 and had nearly 1,000 more yards as a sophomore.
Richardson averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season fresh out of high school.
2) His physical play
Ingram had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards after contact last season.
"Yards after contact I think is a mental thing, not letting the first man bring you down, trying to get as many yards as you can, try and make a play when your team needs the play," he said. "You just need to make a play for them. It's something mental. I don't think it's something you can work on. You can work on getting your knees up, pad level low.
"When it comes to game time, it's your willingness, your desire to keep getting extra guys, keep fighting, try and make a play for the team."
However, Richardson appears to have a lot of that same desire, and his weight room numbers this offseason were some of the best on the team.
"Trent's one of the few guys that will actually came in and give the best he can every day," sophomore linebacker Donta Hightower said. "He's a great athlete, great vision. The one thing that makes Trent, Trent, is the ability to get yards after he's hit."
3) Lack of turnovers
Fumbles by Alabama running backs have become a rare thing. Ingram is averaging one a season, with his first recovered by teammates against LSU in 2008, and he finally lost one against Tennessee last season.
"We've done a good job of taking care of the ball both in the air and on the ground," offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. "I would say that the turnover part has more to do with what our defense does in a daily practice to try to create turnovers, and it forces us to maybe, because of their intensity and how they approach the turnover game, it actually helps us in practice."
4. The home-run threat
Richardson's 49-yard touchdown run against Texas in the BCS National Championship Game gave Alabama the lead and his longest carry of the season was 52 yards against Arkansas when he broke five tackles and headed up the sideline.
When you have two great running backs, sometimes one gets loose," Razorbacks defensive end Jake Bequette said.
It took until Texas for them to both have a 100-yard performance in the same game, the first time an Alabama tandem had done that since the season opener of 2004 (77 games).
Next up, potentially, they could become the first pair of 1,000-yard rushers during the same season in Crimson Tide history.
Subtract quarterback carries and punter P.J. Fitzgerald's fake for 17 yards and Ingram took 51.5 percent of the handoffs last season, with Richardson getting 27.6. Those percentages are expected to be closer together this season.
To try and put it into further perspective Darren McFadden had 1,830 rushing yards on 325 carries in 2007, while his Arkansas teammate Felix Jones tallied 1,162. Three years before that Auburn running back Cadillac Williams had 1,165 rushing yards (which didn't lead the conference, Florida's Ciatrick Fason had 1,267) while teammate Ronnie Brown just missed 1,000 with 913. Three of those four ended up being top 10 draft picks, with Jones lasting until No. 22 in 2008.
No wonder fans are clamoring to see the duo on the field together.
"They actually were last year," McElwain said, but then added: "The one thing I do know, the last time I checked we do only get go play with one football out there."
So is Richardson ready to claim the title of second-best running back in the league?
"That's not for me to say, not for me to judge, but I'm going to give it my all to be one of the best running backs," he said.