Pinball wizard

If you pop him, you drop him. That strategy works against most college running backs but not against Alabama sophomore Mark Ingram. He bounces off would-be tacklers the way a pinball bounces off bumpers.

Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has noticed. That's why popping AND dropping Ingram is his No. 1 concern heading into Saturday's game with the top-ranked Tide at Tuscaloosa.

"He gets so many yards after contact," Kiffin said. "You watch so many missed tackles on him. He bounces off of so many people. We're going to have to do a great job of wrapping him up, a great job of 11 guys running to the ball.

"Time and time again you think you have him down and he spins out for five or six more yards."

Kiffin isn't exaggerating. Alabama actually chronicles Ingram's uncanny knack by keeping a "yards after contact" statistic. It shows that better than half (580) of his combined rushing and receiving yards (1,091) have come after the initial hit.

Ingram doesn't pad his stats against bad teams, either. He had 115 yards after contact vs. Virginia Tech, 95 vs. Ole Miss and 167 vs. South Carolina - the three best defenses he's faced all season.

Ingram piled up 150 rushing yards vs. Tech in Game 1, then fell short of the century mark the next three games in a row. He has gone off since then, however, posting 140 vs. Kentucky, 172 vs. Ole Miss and 246 vs. South Carolina the past three weekends.

"I got to watch the South Carolina game," Vol linebacker Rico McCoy noted, grinning incredulously, "and their back ran for 250 or something like that."

With Bama leading the Gamecocks 13-6 late, Ingram carried the ball on all six plays of the Tide's game-clinching 68-yard touchdown drive. Five of those carries came as a direct-snap tailback, so the Vols can expect to see plenty of that package this weekend.

"It gives them a lot of multiple looks," Vol defensive end Chris Walker said. "He can hand it off, he can take it himself, he can maybe pass it ... we don't know. We have to be ready for anything. Obviously, it gives him the ball right off the snap to do whatever he wants to with it."

At 5-10 and 212 pounds, Ingram has the power to run through tacklers but also the speed to outrun them. He leads the NCAA with 30 runs of 10 or more yards. His 6.7 yards-per-carry average ranks No. 2 nationally.

When Ingram takes a breather, freshman backup Trent Richardson (5-11, 220) takes over at tailback. He's no slouch, either, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 51.3 yards per game.

"They have a pretty good offensive line but I'm more impressed with their backs, though," McCoy said. "They've got three or four top-caliber guys running the ball. They're talented."

Walker thinks so, too.

"They block really well for Ingram, and as people saw last week, he's a really good running back," the Vol end said. "Then they have kids like Richardson come in to back him. When they have a 1-2 punch like that, it's going to be really hard for us.

"It's like thunder and lightning. Ingram's a guy that's going to hit the hole going downhill. Richardson's a guy that can leave you. We have to be really conscious when either one of those guys comes in the game. Ingram comes down with the power game, then Richardson tries to get to the outside."

In addition to his prowess as a runner, Ingram is a capable receiver out of the backfield. He has 19 receptions for 186 yards thus far in 2009.

"He's not just good in the run game; he's dangerous in the pass game," Kiffin said. "He actually has more catches than (star receiver) Julio Jones."

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