Player capsule: Kalen Ballage
Position: Running Back
Weight: 227 pounds
2016 season quick review: Ballage carried the ball 126 times as a junior -- one more than his sophomore campaign -- for 536 yards and 14 touchdowns and also had 44 catches for 469 yards and one touchdown, an exponential growth year in terms how much he was targeted in the passing game. As a result, Ballage cracked 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a season for the first time in his college career. The signature game by Ballage was a NCAA record-tying eight touchdown -- seven rushing touchdown -- performance against Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders had no answer for ASU's Sparky Package with Ballage receiving direct snaps of the football near the goal line. Half of Ballage's rushing touchdowns on the season came in that one game, a remarkable performance that led to some early Heisman Trophy candidacy mentions. Alas, the Sun Devils didn't have a lot of success as the season unfolded and Ballage's production was rather ordinary the rest of the year. His 4.3 yard per carry average was low relative to starter-caliber peers in the Pac-12, and down from 5.3 yards as a sophomore. More than anything about Ballage specifically, it was a sign of ASU's mediocre offensive season, which included quarterback injuries and instability and an underwhelming performance by the team's offensive line.
Long-considered to be one of the best looking and most athletic players on the Arizona State roster, Ballage has put forth relatively pedestrian numbers to this point in his career when measured against expectations. There are a lot of moving parts associated with that, from the mononucleosis that cost him the first three games of 2015 and snapped his strength and conditioning, to the broader offensive limitations of 2016 that restricted Ballage's production.
As much as anything that has been limiting for him, there is real skepticism on our part that prior ASU offenses were built to showcase Ballage in his best form. An angular 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, Ballage is a pro-style running back who is best served in an offense that has a quarterback under center because the deeper running back alignment and associated play development allows him to get more of a head of steam built up on runs both inside and outside, and access his speed. Like NFL backs Darren McFadden and Demarco Murrray, Ballage is at his best when given the ball on toss sweeps to the outside, and when already running hard on inside runs as he enters the scrum at the line of scrimmage.
Ballage is much better suited for this type of run game than being handed the ball off in a shotgun offset formation or being used in a zone-read offense, for example, and yet those were staples of ASU's offenses in recent years under Mike Norvell and Chip Lindsey. In those types of plays, Ballage's athleticism doesn't show up in the same way. He's more hesitant to the hole and lacks purposeful suddenness and force, which prevents him from breaking tackles at the first level.
Out of the three coordinators that Ballage has had to work with, first-year coach Billy Napier may be the best stylistic fit. Napier has a system that is more willing to bring the quarterback under center and more likely to use two tight end sets in the run game. His chasing outside zone blocking schemes work well for Ballage filling in behind it, and Napier has moved out the speedy back to tight slot alignments and used him as a route runner, which will allow for increased opportunities to get his speed in play, and away from the traffic at the line of scrimmage.
Ballage also has a tendency to get too choppy with his footwork in tighter spaces and be overly keen on delivering a blow to would-be tacklers, even if it's easier and more economical to avoid the players. His vision is such that he needs a longer run up to the hole to be able to fully access it. But when he has this, Ballage is a terrific weapon with the football in his hands. He's got elite open field speed and becomes much more powerful when moving at higher RPMs with his feet. The trick is really figuring out how to put Ballage in the best position to showcase his ability because there's a wide performance gap between plays that do this and plays that don't.
Progressively over the last few years, 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 the natural gap scheme style running backs who work effectively out of shotgun offset alignments.
Whereas fellow senior Demario 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 an unfinished product, which actually is intriguing because Ballage has quite a bit of room to still develop. One of the ways he did that last season was in the passing game. Lindsey liked to throw the ball to his backs, and Ballage went from 12 catches in 2015 to 44 in 2016 as a result.
Projected depth chart status: It's setting up well for Ballage and Richard to closely split the bulk of the workload for the Sun Devils this season, and the team's head coach Todd Graham has suggested a strong possibility that we'll be seeing both players on the field together a fair amount in two-back sets. It's something we saw a bit more at the conclusion of spring football. Ballage considered leaving school for the 2016 NFL Draft, but decided to play out his senior season. He's hoping for a much bigger overall impact, certainly. He's also likely to remain the team's starting kickoff returner.