In Keaontay Ingram’s typical low-key, self-effacing manner, the Texas Longhorns running back was critical of himself in the moments after the Sugar Bowl victory over the Georgia Bulldogs earlier this month.
“In my opinion, I don’t feel I did as good as I should have,” Ingram said, according to Inside Texas. “I could have brought way more to the table. I just have got to go through the offseason, correct those, and get ready for next season.”
Ingram finished the season as the team’s second-leading rusher, behind graduate transfer Tre Watson, with 708 yards and three touchdowns on 142 carries. At times, he was spectacular, showing off a slide cut that brought back memories of Longhorn legend Jamaal Charles, the star from a decade ago who could narrow his hips in traffic to avoid presenting a tackling surface to defenders.
Against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Ingram showed off the future of the Texas running game, following an excellent block by redshirt freshman right tackle Sam Cosmi and then finding the edge for a big gain.
Despite Ingram’s successes, however, his assessment of his play against Georgia was correct and applicable to many of his late-season performances — after a 110-yard performance against Baylor, Ingram struggled in three of his final six games. Against West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Georgia, the freshman carried the ball 25 times for 62 yards, an average of 2.4 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Watson was hitting his stride, turning in his best performances of the season, especially agains the Bulldogs, when he carried the ball 18 times for 91 yards and showed a combination of tackle-breaking ability, vision, and decisiveness. Ingram wasn’t able to match that success against the same defense, gaining only 25 yards on nine carries.
Injuries likely played some role in Ingram’s declining productivity late in the season, as he battled a hip pointer throughout the season and suffered a deep bone bruise in his knee against Tulsa. As a result, he missed the USC game and received eight carries in limited playing time the next week against TCU.
“We got to be careful also, he’s a guy that got here in June and he’s played a lot of football, a lot of wear and tear on his body already, having won all the state championships that he won at Carthage and being kind of the work horse for them, too,” head coach Tom Herman said in October.
In fact, Ingram had played the equivalent of two extra seasons of high school football thanks to the deep runs Carthage made into the playoffs each season as he accumulated more than 700 touches in his high school career. In other words, Ingram didn’t arrive with the same type of fresh legs that should help 2019 signee Derrian Brown, who only became a starter as a senior.
Perhaps advanced scouting played a role in Ingram’s decline in productivity, too, as opponents began to recognize his desire to bounce plays outside and then use that slide cut to set up defenders outside before gliding back inside.
Inconsistent vision seemed to be the largest factor — where Watson was able to quickly find running lanes and burst through them at full speed to finish runs with authority, Ingram often spent too much time dancing in the backfield or leaving yards on the field looking for big plays instead of maximizing the gains available to him.
So spending an offseason working with running backs coach Stan Drayton, known as one of the best in the business at developing players at that position, could pay big dividends for Ingram. Just take it from former Ohio State standout Ezekiel Elliott, now one of the NFL’s top ball-carriers with the Cowboys.
“He was hard on me since I got on campus and he’s really the biggest reason why I’m here today and I’m the back I am today,” Elliott said in 2016. “He made sure when I learned this position that I learned it thoroughly, that I learned not just what I do but what the guys around me do. That made me understand the game so much better. He taught me how to anticipate instead of just going off of reactions and going off of instincts. That made me play faster and made me into a great player.”
Seeing the big picture — from the blocking scheme of the offensive line to the defensive front — is exactly where Ingram needs to improve during the offseason to mold the best parts of his game with the attributes that Watson showed at the end of his brief Texas career.
Gaining weight, one of Ingram’s top goals, should help the Carthage product be more durable, break more tackles, and move more piles at the end of runs, too. Listed at 205 pounds on his 6’0 frame, Ingram wants to gain 15 or 20 pounds over the coming months working under strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight. As a summer enrollee, Ingram only had about two months to work with McKnight in 2018 before the start of preseason camp.
With a full offseason on the Forty Acres, those gains seem attainable as Ingram prepares to become the feature back following a season in which the coaching staff carefully managed his carries.
“I think you’ll see the big jump from a physical development once Yancy [McKnight] gets his hands on him for nine months,” Herman said.
With several of the conference’s top running backs departing early for the NFL, the hope is that Ingram can use those offseason gains in the weight room and the film room to become of the Big 12’s best backs.