METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Although Mark Ingram wasn't given a locker near the other running backs at Saints headquarters, he doesn't seem to mind his spot next to rookie defensive end Cam Jordan, a few paces from the equipment room.
``We have a fun little time over here on our side of the wall ... and don't have to walk far when we need socks,'' Ingram said after practice Thursday.
Yet when it comes to Sean Payton's offensive game plans, Ingram has been fully integrated in his first NFL season, with more carries than any other running back on the club. All that's been missing is a long run and a breakout game.
``The challenge for me with a player like Mark is just getting him enough touches and enough carries,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said, alluding to the fact that the Saints also have two strong veteran running backs in Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
We're going to see more and more good things from him,'' Payton continued.Really, it's just giving him those opportunities, and sometimes I don't give him enough of them because we're in another personnel grouping or we're doing something else by design because we do that pretty well as well.''
The Saints' strength remains its passing game. New Orleans is second in the NFL in through the air (336.6 yards per game) and 14th in rushing (115.4). So with three options at running back, and soon to be a fourth when Chris Ivory returns from the physically-unable-to-perform list, there are only so many carries to go around.
Through five games, Ingram has carried a 62 times for a team-leading 216 yards and has two touchdowns, including a 1-yard plunge in New Orleans' 30-27 victory at Carolina last Sunday. He averages 3.5 yards per carry.
By comparison, Thomas has averaged 4.5 yards on 34 carries and Sproles 7.1 yards on 26 carries. Both of those backs also have been involved in the passing game as receivers out of the backfield.
We're winning games and really that's all that matters,'' Ingram said.It's definitely something you have to get used to, but it's just a matter of always staying in the game, always paying attention to what's going on and just helping out whenever you get the opportunity.''
In 2009, Ingram became Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner in the same season he helped lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship.
During last spring's draft, the Saints used their top pick on Jordan, then traded back into the first round to take Ingram 28th overall.
During the lockout, Ingram lived in New Orleans, where he had also worked out before the draft, and participated in workouts that quarterback Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma held at Tulane University.
Soon after training camp began, Payton was confident that he could trust Ingram handle important short yardage runs and even blocking assignments when he didn't get the ball.
Very quickly you recognize that he's smart. He picks things up. He doesn't repeat mistakes. He understands protections, and he's been coached hard,'' Payton said.He's a good instinctive football player that at any time we can insert ... and he'd know the protections. He'd know everything just as Pierre does or Darren does or someone who's been in the system. That versatility is a huge plus.''
Although Ingram has not had a run longer than 17 yards or any more than 55 yards in a game, left tackle Jermon Bushrod said the Saints have been impressed with the young running back's work ethic and his ability to fight for tough yardage.
We have too many weapons for a running back to be in this system and get 100 yards a game,'' Bushrod said.He's doing everything he has to do right now to continue to get better and we're excited about that. Truthfully, our mentality here is we could care less about a 100-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard rusher for a season. That doesn't really make a difference for us. We're just trying to go out here and execute whatever Payton's vision is.''
Rather than worry about when he'll finally break a big play, Ingram said he is grateful to be part of a productive offense full of veterans who are willing to help him methodically get better.
Having veteran players to learn from like Pierre and Darren and being in the huddle with Drew, the transition has been real smooth,'' Ingram said.The guys have helped me with that, learning plays, being comfortable out there and knowing my assignment. I haven't been frustrated by too much of anything.''
Notes: WR Devery Henderson returned to practice fully from a left calf injury that kept him off the field on Wednesday. ... RT Zach Strief (right knee), TE David Thomas (concussion) and LB Will Herring (left hamstring) did not practice.