Kalen Ballage knew what was coming.
On the second play of 11-on-11 action in Arizona State's preseason camp, Ballage sniffed out senior quarterback Mike Bercovici's quick pass and leaped into the air to bat the ball down at the line of scrimmage.
"I just noticed that the offensive linemen kind of quick set, so when they quick set you can expect a quick pass," Ballage said. "It's kind of like a quick step and he's throwing right away, so I got my head turned around and got my arms up and batted the ball down."
After being what ASU coach Todd Graham termed the "MVP of spring ball," Ballage is off to a great start in August as well.The 6-foot-3, 225 pound sophomore improved his strength and conditioning leading up to the spring and then performed much more impressively in practices at running back.
In the second half of spring, Ballage was looked at as a pass rush option on defense. Wednesday, on the opening day of preseason camp, he practiced at Devil backer exclusively. If he continues to make plays like the one described, it may be difficult for the Sun Devils to not use him on both sides of the field.
That'd be just fine with Ballage, who said being an offensive player gave him a more advanced feel when he lines up on the other side of the ball.
"I've always played every position my whole life, every since I was little." Ballage said. "In high school, I played defense and I played offense. To me, it's fun. It's kind of boring just to sit on the sideline and just do one thing, wait for offense to come up. I like being able to get on the field and try to help the team in any way possible."
For the Sun Devils, the biggest challenge may be managing how to use Ballage as effectively as possible. After all, this is also a player who projects as ASU's No. 2 running back. Graham has experience with trying to play someone on offense, at 3-back, while also using him on defense at Devil backer, and it didn't go so well.
"We're trying to learn from De'Marieya. (Nelson)," Graham said. "I always talk about the things we do good, I never really talk about the things we didn't do good. I think we really marginalized his play because he was having to do so much and he got nagging injuries and stuff."
But that's a challenge Graham is going to pour himself into because of his confidence that Ballage can be special on either side of the football.
"He can be one of the most dynamic tailbacks in the country and he can be one of the most dynamic pass rushers, there's no doubt in my mind," Graham said." Now how much we use him and stuff, we're going to look at it and evaluate it."
In Thursday's veteran practice, Ballage is expected to line up at running back. He may alternate days until ASU coaches have a better idea of what they'd like to do with him and the team.
One of the main determining factors will be scheme. Graham admitted Wednesday that without a proven do-everything Carl Bradford-type Devil backer in the fold -- a problem all by solidified when highly regard Davon Durant was dismissed from school over an alleged domestic violence incident -- the Sun Devils may utilize two different base packages on defense.
"We're going to have a 40 alignment (four down lineman) where we'll play (junior Edmond) Boateng and senior (Demetrius) Cherry at ends, even (sophomore) Chans Cox in a (3-point) stance," Graham said. "Then we'll play with a standup guy, Kalen Ballage, (redshirt freshman) Ismael Murphy-Richardson" in a 30 package" with three down lineman and a hybrid rush end.
Last year the Sun Devils abandoned their most traditional look to go with a 4-3 base (40 alignment) through the heart of the schedule. How much of each look they use this year may depend on which opponent their playing and what their ultimate capability is with their personnel.Experience shows on practice field
Never one to shy from superlatives, Graham upped the ante Wednesday when he doubled down on his regularly stated off-season rhetoric that this is not only the furthest along the program has been since he arrived in Tempe, but his best team ever.
"The thing that was very evident to me today with the veterans is the training program," Graham said." We're in Year 4, wow. Best-looking team we've had. I'm talking about looking in their eyes. Fastest, strongest, most powerful. It was really exciting to see that today, and very, very poised and experienced how they worked in practice today.
"It's the little things. How they speak, how they walk, how they talk."
Graham had a conversation recently with ASU's head of sports performance Shawn Griswold, and liked what he heard.
"He called me the last day," Graham said, "and said, 'man, coach, I got them where they need to be.'"
Considering ASU's regularly stated goal is to win 15 games and a national title, that's saying a lot.
Newcomers pass the eye test
It wasn't just the veteran group that made a big impression
ASU's recruiting class in 2015 was the highest rated of the Internet-era (at least 20 years) and it showed when all of the players were assembled in once place in football helmets and in front of coaches and media for the first time, in a separate practice just for newcomers in the evening.
A good problem to have though for ASU is finding a place for them to play. Outside of a few spots, ASU's veteran experience and talent is good enough that it may suppress what ordinarily would be a class filled with freshman participants.
"I think our freshmen are really talented, the most talented we've brought in here," Graham said. "But it's going to be a challenge for them to get in the lineup. That's a problem we have not had to this point."