White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – Remember last year at training camp at The Greenbrier, when all the talk about Mark Ingram centered on how decisive he looked as a runner, improved he looked as a receiver, comfortable he looked in the New Orleans Saints offense and imposing he looked as a back carrying around 215 pounds packed muscularly onto a 5-foot-9 frame?
Rinse it off and repeat it this year, with this addition: He's more confident now that he has done a fraction of what he always knew he was capable of doing.
After three spotty, sometimes injury-interrupted seasons in which he ran for a combined 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries in 37 games (an average of 487 yards and four touchdowns on 119 carries, in 12 games), he broke out last year with 964 yards and nine touchdowns on 226 carries, in 13 games.
In addition to his career highs in yards, carries, touchdowns and starts (nine), he also had career highs in receptions (29) and receiving yards (145), and became the first Saints running back since Deuce McAllister in 2003 with three consecutive 100-yard games and a Pro Bowl invitation. It helped Ingram earn a four-year contract from the team that drafted him in the first round (No. 28 overall) in 2011.
"I'm very confident," Ingram said. "Just understanding the offense, understanding how I'm supposed to do what I need to do to execute my assignment. There's no substitute for experience, no substitute for having reps. The more times you get the ball, the more times you have the opportunity to make plays or make mistakes, you learn from them and you grow. That's what helps you grow confident and excel as a player.
"You have to be able to back up your actions. Just because you say you're confident and that you can do something, doesn't mean that you can actually do it. Being confident in yourself and going out there and proving that you can do it, and proving that you can make plays out there and proving that you can be consistent out there on the playing field, I think that's when people can believe it as well. Not just yourself, but your teammates and coaches and fans might notice and believe it as well.
"When you're making plays and you're having success and being consistent, the coaches have more faith in you, more confidence in you. In turn, it gives you more opportunities to be successful."
That was never more evident than during the three-game stretch in which he ran for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against Green Bay, 100 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries against Carolina, and 120 yards on 27 carries against San Francisco.
It was the most productive three-game stretch of Ingram's career and coincided with New Orleans' best three-game stretch of the 2014 season.
Ingram now hopes to be more of a factor in the Saints' passing game. He caught 60 passes for 670 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons at Alabama.
"Mark has that versatility where we feel like he absolutely is someone that can help us in the running game and the passing game," Coach Sean Payton said.
"He's in good shape. Coming off last year's season, he reported in good shape. I know he's anxious to continue to work on the different things that he can add to his role and we're anxious, too."
"I've always wanted to do that, since my first day here," Ingram said. "I've always believed in myself that I can contribute to the passing game, coming out of the backfield, running routes.
"Whatever way there is to get the ball, I feel like I can do effectively. I've been saying that for a long time, I'm looking forward to that, hopefully expanding that role and having an opportunity to do that more this year."
But the Saints' backfield isn't any less crowded this year than it has been in the past. It has been a deep position under Payton in the past, and Ingram is joined in training camp by Khiry Robinson (who returns from last season), C.J. Spiller (a free-agent signee) and a host of others, including veteran Tim Hightower and rookie Marcus Murphy.
"All of us want the ball," he said. "All of us want to be in all the time. But it's healthy competition, we make each other better.
"When I go out there and make a play, Khiry (Robinson), (C.J.) Spiller, Tim (Hightower) – whoever it is, they want to make a play as well. When they make a play, I'm itching to go out there and make a play. You never want anybody to one-up you but that's what healthy competition is all about.
"We'll make each other better and if you have that in every position group on a team, ultimately, you'll be successful. That's what championship teams thrive on – healthy competition, making each other better and being successful with one another."
But Ingram leads the way, and no one is disappointed about saying the same things about him in this training camp that was said last year in training camp. Likely, no one will have him posting the same caliber of season as last year, either.