All of which means Ballard is fulfilling expectations placed on a junior transfer signed specifically to put some punch in the Bulldog backfield. He may have been nervous at first, but it did not show on Scott Field. "I think it's the experience," he said. "Just the overall game speed and everything, I'm getting comfortable with it so I can just go out and play football and stop thinking as much."
That experience of course comes from two junior college seasons where Ballard was tabbed a first-team All-American. It showed immediately in spring camp when he bolted to the top of the tailback depth chart, with Ballard also showing a well-balanced skill set that gave him an edge on a couple of redshirted runners. He needed it, too, in one aspect.
"Because even though I came from junior college it's a brand-new offensive system. So I was in the same boat as everybody else." But Ballard did have a margin gained by taking junior college contact for two seasons while current State cohorts were limited last fall; junior Robert Elliott by a long recovery from knee injuries, and LaDarius Perkins by redshirting.
Ballard's little extra bit of maturity shows, he said. "Oh yes. Most definitely. Because players coming from high school, they've still got the ‘high school state of mind' or whatever. I'm a little past that so I think I've got a seriousness about me that allows me to learn even more."
State learned that Ballard can be more than a solid runner as forecast. In his Bulldog debut he broke through traffic and galloped 51 yards for a second-quarter touchdown against Memphis. Funny thing, though. Ballard didn't put on any end zone display after that big play.
"It just felt normal to me! At practice we do certain situations like that, when a person scores everybody comes down and celebrates. I felt I was at practice!" Presumably Ballard and his backfield peers will keep up such practicing in hopes the ground game is something to celebrate. They certainly want a better showing this week than the 117 net rushing yards and 3.5 per-carry rate Auburn allowed.
Getting great individual numbers may be another matter, because so far State is sticking to a balanced backfield rotation of Ballard, Elliott, and Perkins. So it will be difficult for any one back to pile up big numbers, based on early indications. Ballard said it isn't easy adjusting to a rotation role after a career as the feature back, which of course both his cohorts can also say.
"But it's a way to stay fresh, know what I'm saying? So I don't complain, I just make the best of the play. Like I said, we all try to make the best of the things we do get. So it works."
Speaking of work, Ballard has learned another fact of college life. Those packed houses he played for are wonderful, even distracting. "I was just soaking it in, looking at the crowd, seeing how it felt. I haven't ever played in front of that many people." But with Davis Wade Stadium filled, a whole lot of new friends seek out Ballard for help with admission. And not just SEC games.
"Oh, shoot, that was for Memphis!" he laughed. "It's just part of being a collegiate athlete, have you got any extra tickets?!"
TAKING TURNS ON TOTES: For his part offensive coordinator Les Koenning may be asking if anyone can get his backfield some extra carries. As noted, the running back rotation has split the totes pretty evenly through two games. Ballard has a dozen rushes; Perkins eleven; and Elliott 15. That's not the most carries on the club though; QB Chris Relf has rushed 21 official times, which admittedly includes sacks and scrambles.
Yet few dispute that Relf is a big-play runner in his own right, able to tuck and tote the distance from any point on the field. It makes for an interesting challenge, or opportunity, in State's scheming. Coach Dan Mullen did say Monday that, looking at the stat-line from Auburn, typically it would be better to see more carries for the tailbacks.
A major reason why that did not happen last week was State's use of option-sweeps. Whether by design or by circumstance, the Tigers typically covered the tailback and took their chances on Relf keeping. Mullen saw his quarterback typically making the right choices. "There were not that many situations you'd say we should have given it to the tailback right there."
"It's just a situation we ran into," Koenning said. "The tailbacks would have touched it a lot more on some of our option stuff but Auburn took it away and Relf ran the ball. It wasn't a bad deal, it took away some carries but we don't mind Relf carrying the ball!
Koenning said Monday the rotations will continue. "I'm not so much worried about this guy, that guy; whatever I can do to put our team in the best position to win." Besides, the boss said, a rotation is the right way to go given the makeup of this Bulldog backfield.
"Those guys aren't the wear-you-down backs that Anthony Dixon was," Mullen said. "They all have a little different something to them, so that we're in the same play but with Vick Ballard it looks different than with LaDarius Perkins."
BETTER TO TAKE THAN GIVE: Just glancing at the week's SEC statistics it would seem Mississippi State is ahead of the game in turnover margin through two games, tied for fifth with South Carolina at plus-one. Certainly it's better to be on the positive side of this ledger.
But defensive co-coordinator Manny Diaz' mind is on the other side of things these days. "One thing, we are not nearly creating enough negative plays," he said today.
By which he means both plays that take yards from the opponent, and plays that simply take the ball away. Mississippi State has recovered a single fumble, of two chances, so far; and intercepted three passes from 53 balls put in the air. There have been just three true sacks and a dozen total tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Not good enough, Diaz said. "That is what we said we were going to be and we're not holding up our end of the bargain. Now, we've had opportunities. I think we've had a lot of opportunities to make turnovers and tackle people behind the line of scrimmage, and we're not producing both of those."
Opportunity rarely comes more clearly, and timely, than in the third quarter against Auburn. That was when CB/S Corey Broomfield read the play rightly, came clean on an anticipated swing-out pass to a back, and got both hands on the ball. Only the ball ended up on the ground, instead of in the end zone for a pick-six. Yes, the throw was coming from a high angle and at very short range…but Broomfield has made such plays before, such as the intercept and return to clinch the 2009 Egg Bowl.
So experienced and expectations are there to make such plays. Ditto, Diaz said, for chances to sack the passer or at least take down the receiver for large losses. Double-ditto for running plays that State has been able to slow down in development without finishing things off in the backfield. Diaz has reason to like the fact that this defense, trained to be more aggressive and creative, is creating such situations.
It's now more a matter of sealing these deals.
"That's what wins, and that goes back to Thursday. If we make negative plays we'll win the game. That's what we're predicated on, that's how the whole thing has been built. We have not yet established that identity and I'm eager for that to occur."
The one positive aspect Diaz and his defensive cohorts have been able to apply from Auburn is on-screen reinforcement. No matter the respective ages and classes of these players, they still are all first-timers in this system. Thus teaching continues and a painful lesson displayed in the film room is more effective now.
"You wish it wasn't that way but that's the way it is. So the more they can see when people are in the stadium…oh, I understand, that's why you want me to do that. We've been saying it since March but sometimes they have to learn it the hard way."