As for the first six working days, "Right now we're just going back to the basics, correcting all the little stuff, you know what I'm saying?" Ballard said. "So that when we get to the game we won't have to worry about it."
Indeed, a sizable segment of the starting lineup—including Ballard—has spent more time watching others work than getting involved themselves. Mullen and coaching staff has rationed out snaps for these Dogs to greater and lesser extents both to allow some a well-earned rest and in a few of those cases a little down-time to heal. Take Ballard, who was running on an iffy ankle much of the second half of the season.
Or tackle Derek Sherrod with the nagging foot pains, not to mention his busy ceremonial tour immediately after the season. Or defensive end Pernell McPhee with, by his count, at least three areas that were hurting in November. These Dogs are benefitting greatly from limited scrimmaging, so far, so they can be as close as any starting player is to 100% going into the Gator Bowl.
The difference of course is that several of the aforementioned are seniors anyway. Junior Ballard has his senior season to look forward to. Still Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning have taken it easy on the leading Bulldog ground-gainer of 2010 for other reasons.
"Right now we're just playing some of the younger guys, just getting them some kind of experience for when the go into spring." Thus LaDarius Perkins, a proven play-maker in his own '10 right, and redshirt Nick Griffin have carried most of the backfield load in bowl camp. They've done it quite well, too, which bodes big competition when the whole bunch reassembles for spring football competition.
Then again it will be easy pegging which tailback gets first February turn. Ballard had an outstanding first State season with 892 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns; the latter figure tying the all-time Bulldog rushing record set waaaaaay back in 1952 by Jackie Parker. Add in his one touchdown ‘catch', which came on an option-pitch and thus was a ‘run' in all but official reckoning, and suddenly this Pascagoula native stands alone as Mississippi State's top six-point producer in any season, ever. Only Parker's 120 points back in '52 (for historical perspective, the year before Jack Cristil called his first Mississippi State game) tops the 102 Ballard notched this year and that is because the greatest Bulldog player of all also kicked PATs.
On the whole Ballard was content with his first State season. "Pretty much. Oh, there's some things I could have done. And I won't say I'm satisfied."
That's not ego speaking either. The first fact Ballard would have changed in his debut Dog season would be staying healthy; he missed one entire game (UAB) and was slowed in the Egg Bowl by the ankle. Not so much he was unable to add his 17th TD of the season on a sprint to the pylon. But the ankle is what kept Ballard from topping 1,000 yards for the season, and even making a run at topping the 1,069 yards James ‘JJ' Johnson piled up as a junior transfer in 1997.
The real fact is, Ballard sets a mighty high standard for himself and since the Egg Bowl has replayed the season in his mind for areas of improvement.
"Oh yeah, I think about that all the time. I think about it after every game, really, because there's always a way to get better." Alright, such as? "Just steps, mainly, because in the backfield you have to study the steps you have to take. Things like that. Steps, and pass-blocking." Nothing really radical, you see, simply the fundamental aspects demanded of a Bulldog tailback by Mullen's offense.
Though, Ballard adds on his own volition, there is one season moment that still stands out…for painful reasons. "Yeah. The Arkansas game, when I stretched the ball out. I think about that all the time." So do plenty of Bulldog fans, who recall too well watching Ballard's first-overtime attempt to break the plane on a race to the left corner…only to have a racing Razorback helmet-hit the ball loose and at an improbable angle to send it out of the end zone, not over the sideline.
The thing is, not a single State soul who knows the game has said a word of criticism for Ballard. He was making an effort-play, of the sort Mullen wants and encourages. And, as his coach reminded, the Arkansas defender wasn't supposed to even be in the vicinity; he wasn't properly blocked by a receiver. Still, Ballard wonders…
"I mean, even if I wouldn't have stretched the ball out I probably would have scored. I didn't even feel confident, that's why I stretched it out."
A productive two weeks of bowl camp, and participating in his first college classic on New Years Day, should ease some of that sting. And, give Ballard a jump-start on what should be an even better senior season. But give the guy credit that he's not taking anything for granted even today.
"It's just getting better, you know? Once you get satisfied that's when you start doing bad." Needless to say, Ballard has no notion of a poor performance in the Gator Bowl. Especially since for the first time since September, he ought to be fully healthy and really ready to run.
"Then I'm back to prime!"