After becoming the highest-ranked running back to sign with the Texas Longhorns since Johnathan Gray in 2012, Carthage product Keaontay Ingram wasted no time making his presence felt on the Forty Acres. Ingram stepped foot on campus last summer as the low man on the totem pole and swiftly chipped away at the depth chart, surpassing the likes of Tristian Houston, Kirk Johnson, and key 2017 contributor Toneil Carter by the time fall camp was complete.
It quickly became quite clear why he was worthy of a role in the rotation, as Ingram found the end zone against Maryland on only his fourth career carry, and flashed enough ability in limited touches to leapfrog Daniel Young on the depth chart following his debut.
He only continued to impress against Tulsa.
End of the 1st Quarter, Texas leading 14-0.— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) September 9, 2018
Keaontay Ingram down the sideline with a 29 yard TD. pic.twitter.com/c7qEtHoidk
With Ingram sidestepping and dodging defenders at will, it appeared that the path to considerably more playing time was becoming a bit more clear with each carry, but then his body began to get in the way more effectively than opposing defenses were able to. After eclipsing 100 yards on just 16 carries against Maryland and Tulsa, Ingram took an early exit against the Golden Hurricane after suffering an MCL strain and a deep bone bruise, which forced him to watch from the sidelines the following weekend with USC in town.
Hobbled, he returned to the rotation for Texas’ Big 12 opener against TCU, totaling 38 yards on eight carries and leading the Longhorns with 4.8 yards per attempt; not to mention, he did so while working through a minor in-game hip injury. Last Saturday’s win over Kansas State painted a similar picture, as Ingram’s 10 carries for 68 yards headlined the rushing attack yet again, despite the fact that the freshman still didn’t appear to be entirely healthy.
Should his health allow, the game tape says Ingram is primed for a promotion to the primary running back role, and Texas head coach Tom Herman agrees.
“Certainly he’s ready,” Herman said on Monday when asked if Ingram is ready to take on a feature back role. Now, he hasn’t been healthy since week one when we were not quite sure. As a true freshman, you want to kind of ease him into some things.”
However, the staff is concerned about how Ingram handles some of the finer details required of a running back.
“There’s still some things that every first is a first,” Herman said. “Every new thing is a first-time. Every blitz, every gap exchange linebackers — running the football requires a vision and a skill, requires a bit of predictability in terms of or ability to predict based on fronts and coverages, where a guy is going to fit certain things and how is my O-line going to block certain things.
“So there’s still some growing pains there. But he’s getting better each week.”
A clean bill of health — or the lack thereof — and the growing pains associated with being a freshman running back playing in a Power Five conference haven’t hindered Ingram from separating himself as the most productive ball carrier in Texas’ backfield.
Through four games, Ingram has turned his 34 carries into 207 yards, which is good for a team-best 6.1 yards per carry — his yards per carry average has led the Longhorns in three of the four games he’s appeared in. While these may not be mind-boggling numbers on the surface, consider the productivity Texas has received from its other running backs, Tre Watson and Daniel Young.
Ingram has received only one more carry than Young thus far, but has amassed 75 more yards. If his 6.1 per carry average matched Watson’s 70 carries, Ingram would have compiled 427 yards to this point, which easily overshadows Watson’s 280 yards.
The most recent outing against K-State may be the most notable example of this growing discrepancy, as Ingram’s 10 carries netted 47 more yards than Watson and Young were able to muster with nine carries.
It’s not exactly a secret that Ingram is the most natural runner of the bunch, as his shiftiness and capacity to cut on a dime and utilize slide cuts has largely contributed his ability to make the most of each carry and find additional yardage beyond what the offensive line blocks for. For example, despite missing the USC game and being limited through two Big 12 contests, seven of Ingram’s 34 carries have gone for at least 10 yards, which is more than Watson (4) and Young (2) have combined to account for. Furthermore, he’s the only running back among the bunch to spark multiple 10-plus-yard carries in a single game, doing so twice against Tulsa and Kansas State.
When Burnt Orange Nation’s Wescott Eberts asked former Longhorns standout Kasey Studdard about the comparison between Ingram and Studdard’s old teammate Jamaal Charles, Studdard instantly said, “I see it.”
Charles was known for never getting hit, Studdard said — Charles would distort his body in a certain way to avoid defenders and Studdard sees a similar quality in Ingram.
“He has a little bit of that Jamaal Charles in him,” Studdard said.
The only difference? Ingram doesn’t have the same elite speed as Charles, who was a four-time All-American in track at Texas.
Current Longhorns now enjoy blocking for Ingram as much as those old Texas players enjoyed blocking for Charles.
“He’s a key part of the offense,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said of Ingram. “It’s a lot of fun to block for him, that’s for sure, because we know he’s going to make plays.”
Injuries and Ingram adjusting to the intricacies of the college game have afforded Herman and his staff time to ease the true freshman into his share of reps while deciphering what they have in Watson and Young, but it’s time to cut Ingram loose.
Through five games, Texas ranks 80th nationally in rushing offense (153.2), which is good for only seventh in the 10-team Big 12. Meanwhile, Ingram’s 6.1 yards per carry average is the fourth-best effort among all Big 12 running backs, behind only West Virginia’s Kennedy McKoy (6.4), Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill (7.5), and Kansas’ Pooka Williams Jr. (7.9).
Beginning with Oklahoma (T-60th) for Saturday’s Red River Showdown, Texas won’t see a single top 25 rush defense the rest of the 2018 campaign. However, the Horns will see four top 12 offenses throughout that stretch.
It could go without saying that with Texas likely need to win a shootout or two in the coming weeks, and being able to control the clock and spark big plays of its own can make those chores much more manageable.
Nearly halfway through the 2018 slate, Ingram is the only running back yet to prove capable of providing those big plays in bulk, which would allow Texas to keep pace with more potent offenses.
Despite the general inexperience, Ingram has been the best Texas running back, essentially across the board, and that includes his ability to impact the passing game, as his 10 receptions for 39 yards also leads the running back room.
That’s become fairly apparent, and the masses and the media aren’t the only ones well aware of Ingram’s impact and how significant it could become with increased touches. Herman sees feature back potential in his young ball carrier, and if healthy, Ingram’s first true breakout effort could be coming as soon as Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.