Player Capsule: Kalen Ballage
Position: Running Back
Weight: 230 pounds
2015 season quick review: After missing the first three games of the season due to mononucleosis, Ballage returned against USC and worked himself back into playing shape as the season unfolded. It wasn't ideal or anywhere near it but he still put together a solid sophomore season, with 653 rushing yards in 10 games. The 5.2 yards-per-carry average Ballage put forth was just behind classmate Demario Richard's 5.3 average. Ballage had four rushing touchdowns and added 12 receptions for 60 yards. His most memorable run of the season was a 23-yard so-called "moonwalk" touchdown against UCLA, but Ballage had a career-best 127 rushing yards on just 12 carries against Oregon on Oct. 29 and followed it up with 84 rushing yards on 14 carries the next week at Washington State.
2014 season quick review: As a true freshman, Ballage played in 12 games and had 42 carries for 138 yards and three touchdowns and six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, which was a memorable and important explosive play at Colorado. Ballage also had a 96 yard kickoff return in the Sun Devils’ Sun Bowl win over Duke, earning the game’s Special Teams Most Valuable Player Award.
Running backs coach John Simon's recent assessment: “He’s going to be a big guy, hard guy to bring down and he’s elusive and he has long speed. So with his skill set we’re going to find a way to use him in the screen game and in the pass game, line him up as receiver, in the backfield, move him around. Just find ways to get him in space.”
SunDevilSource.com analysis (04/2016): In each of his first two years in Tempe Ballage had an injury or illness entering the season. In 2014 he had a back issue that was limiting and he missed the first three games of the 2015 season because of mononucleosis. That led to a lot of quick weight loss and kept Ballage from being near full strength and hurt his conditioning. As the season progressed Ballage got stronger and continued to show that his best football is ahead of him.
One of the fastest players on the team -- he hit 22.3 miles per hour on a long run in an April 13 scrimmage according to strength coach Shawn Griswold -- Ballage has always been devastating to defenses in the open field. The challenge has been figuring out how to get him there as much as possible to take advantage of his elite speed and agility for a 230-pound running back.
Ballage is ideally suited to be used in a pro-style offense that has a quarterback under center because it allows him to get more of a head of steam built up on runs both inside and outside, and optimize his speed. He'll be at his best when given toss sweeps and he can one-cut and explode when he's already moving. In this regard he's similar to NFL backs like Darren McFadden and Demarco Murrray. He's not as much of a natural fit for the spread off-set back schemes on inside runs, but there's still creative ways to maximize his value in these offenses from a play-calling standpoint, especially the outside stretch zone working to the field side out of offset or Pistol sets.
Ballage has weened himself to some degree off a tendency to want to bounce the ball outside even when it's not designed to be in the play. He's also improved his flexibility and core strength in ways that will help him between the tackles, where he has a lot of surface area and hasn't been as apt to break tackles or get on the second level as quickly as his position-mate Demario Richard. Whereas Richard is more of a natural fit for the scheme as an inside zone runner, and more of a innate running back, Ballage is more of a work in progress, especially with how his first two seasons each started behind the 8-ball. That's not a bad thing because Ballage has quite a bit of room to still develop. ASU likes to throw the ball to its backs in this Chip Lindsey offense and that's another way to get Ballage chances at getting into the open space he thrives in.
(03/2015): In the open field, Ballage is an extremely potent athlete due to his combination of size and strength. When he’s able to get a head of steam built up, he’s extremely difficult to bring down at the second level because of this and also because he has good elusiveness in space for a back with such a large amount of surface area as a vertical runner at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. While Ballage looks like a Greek God from a physique standpoint, it belies to some degree where he’s at from a functionally athletic standpoint as it relates to football.
Last year (as a freshman) he played through a lot of physical discomfort and soreness due in part to these issues and also as he adjusted to a college strength and conditioning program. His flexibility through his trunk and hips and core strength are in need of improvement and will make a big difference in his capability as he develops in those areas. As a back, he has a tendency to be a bit upright and want to spill the ball too much on designed inside runs instead of hit the proper gap, but he showed improvement in this area as the last year unfolded. The fact he was able to be a very solid contributor and yet still have a lot of areas in which he can improve is a good sign for his future.
Projected depth chart status: He's been a little snake-bit but Ballage has put in the work and is due to get off to a strong start to a season. As long as he's able to do that he's likely to have an impressive junior season as he and Richard are very complimentary players. Lindsey has already shown he'll get two quality backs enough carries to each shine, as his Southern Miss offense had two 1,000 yard rushers last season, a remarkable accomplishment. With ASU likely to rely heavily on its backs this season while adjusting to a new starting quarterback, there should be ample opportunities for Richard and Ballage to combine for a lot of production.