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Lyons Yellin / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
Email: lyellin@wwltv.com | Twitter: @wwltvsports

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. --No one needs to tell New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram it's a big year for him.

He's fully aware of that fact.

He's knows he's competing for a job against a stable of talented running backs. He knows he's fighting for his next contract.

Only Ingram, who has every reason to feel the weight of his circumstance, says he doesn't.

'I'm just going to go out there and do what I do: play football, do what I've been doing my whole life, be the best I can be, and everything else will handle itself,' he said confidently.

When the Saints declined to pick up his fifth-year option during the offseason, Ingram took it in stride.

'Every year is a big year, but (there is a) special emphasis on this year,' he said. 'It's important to come out, have a great (training) camp, and get off to a fast start.

'I just want to come out here, get better every day, stay healthy, and have a big year.'

Last season, Ingram finished strong, rushing 18 times for 97 yards in a road playoff with in Philadelphia. He followed that with 10 carries for 49 yards against Seattle's top-ranked defense in a road playoff loss, matching his team leading 4.9-yard per carry average during the regular season.

The Saints now seem ready to give him a more central role in the running game.

'He is one of our starters on offense,' Payton said. 'He is a guy that we felt played very well in the last half of the season. ... He is smart. He is tough. He runs with good pad level.

'To have success in the running game and passing game, he's ready for that challenge. So far he is doing well.'

On Sunday, when the pads go on, Ingram will face a whole new challenge, one he recognizes and gladly accepts.

'Everybody out here is going to battle,' he said. 'That's what's awesome about it. We all push each other to get better, and ultimately just be the best you can be and do what you can to go out there and help the team win games. Everybody is in a battle, that's part of the NFL.'

Ingram has only sporadically showed flashes of Heisman Trophy-winning running back that rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading Alabama to a national championship in 2009. He's looked far more pedestrian for most of his time in New Orleans, where he's never been the featured back as he was in college.

The Saints employ a running back by committee system because, Payton said, 'it is a position that gets nicked up in our game.'

Since Payton took over in New Orleans in 2006, Deuce McAllister is the only running back to average more than 13 carries per game. He did that during Payton's first season.

No running back has more experience in the Saints' system than Pierre Thomas. The eight-year veteran is a patient runner who understands the importance of letting plays develop. It's a skill, Thomas said, he learned watching McAllister, as well as Minnesota All-Pro Adrian Peterson.

'Patience is a big key because everything moves so fast and you have to let everything develop first,' Thomas said. 'You just can't take off because there might be one hole and you get there too quick and then you didn't see the other hole open up because you hit the first one too quick.

'That's when the patience comes in and that's what's helped me to be consistent throughout my career.'

Thomas has tried to instill this quality in Ingram, saying at times he's a little too anxious to hit the hole hard.

'But what runner isn't anxious,' Thomas admitted. 'I do it at times, too. Sometimes you just have to sit back and think 'OK, I have to take my time.' When somebody else sees it, too, that's when I come in and tell (Ingram) 'Hey, take your time on this play, relax, you are going to see it and just breath.'

'Hopefully those words ease him and just calm him down and put him on the right path to help him have an outstanding game.'

Ingram seems to have accepted Thomas' tutelage, and of late, has demonstrated considerably more patience while maintaining his explosive running style. At no time was this more evident than in the Saints' Week 10 victory against Dallas, when Ingram rushed 14 times for a career-best 145 yards and one touchdown.

But with so few carries to go around, does Ingram feel he needs to duplicate that performance each time he touches the ball?

'Every run isn't going to be ten yards, fifteen yards,' he said. 'You have to live with some two yard runs, getting back to the line of scrimmage runs. You just have to keep plugging away at it, and you'll pop those forty yarders, those thirty yarders, those long ones.

'It's a battle and you just have to keep at it.'

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