Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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As we wind down the hours now until the Saints' first practice of the 2012 season, we're finishing up our series of 20 Saints questions.

The questions are in no particular order of importance...except for No. 1.

5. Can Mark Ingram reach expectations in his second year?

As soon as the Saints moved up in the 2011 draft to grab running back Mark Ingram, there was going to be pressure on the college standout.

Not that he hadn't faced pressure before coming off a 2009 Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, he was expected to be just as productive as a college junior. Only, he entered the season with an injury and never caught up to his masterful sophomore season.

Ingram, then, was expected to be the Saints' saving grace at running back and in the preseason, he looked the part. He ran over safety Roman Harper in practice at the goal line, a play that prompted loads of press and tons of local TV news replays.

But then the regular season came around and Ingram didn't again hit his preseason version of brilliance.

He never rushed for 100 yards, never had that moment.

The Saints went out and got him because they were looking for a bruising straight-ahead running back to get the tough short yards. In the season opener against Green Bay, he got that chance but a combination of bad blocks and the Packers kept him out of the end zone as the clock went to zeroes.

And he was injured, missing two weeks because of a heel injury and then the final six games of the season including playoffs because of a lingering toe injury.

He finished with just 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. His 3.9 yard-per=carry average was lowest on the team for anyone with more than 20 carries.

The question is can he be the running back that the Saints hoped and fans salivated over.

There's no doubt that expectations are still high, but they're lower this season. The Saints retain their entire backfield from last season, which should help take some of the pressure off of Ingram.

He would have been helped this offseason by being able to go through minicamp and OTAs. However, surgery on his knee this offseason and a more significant surgery on his toe kept him out of everything.

So he gets not advantage there and that would have been a big one in getting to where he needed to be.

Still, the talent is there and he does have a season under his belt. He knows the speed of the game now. He understands how the offense works and how it should work.

While he'll likely never reach Maurice Jones-Drew levels, he doesn't need to. The Saints just need him to do his job and get the tough first downs and that's something he can still do.

He might meet those rookie-year expectations this season, but he'll come much closer to it this season.

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