Meaning Ballard had to talk. And talk. And talk more. "Man, I was thinking about that coming over," he admitted, regarding the one-day duty as tougher than anything strength coach Matt Balis might have had him doing.
Happily for all involved, particularly local reporters who have found procuring quotes from this Dog as easy as opponents do tackling him, Ballard rose to the occasion. He took care of the routine questions, well, routinely; and the trickier queries he shrugged off like an overmatched defensive back.
Mullen's choice of Ballard to join quarterback and Media Day veteran Chris Relf and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox may have surprised some familiar with this low-key guy. But it was also obvious from a State standpoint. Ballard is not merely one of the top running backs in the Southeastern Conference but he is coming off a record-setting junior season.
All Ballard did in 2010 as a transfer tailback was smash a standard set almost a half-century earlier. He carried a football into an end zone twenty times; 19 rushing, and the other ‘receiving' though it really was just a forward-toss option play sticky statisticians rule a pass play. He broke the record of 16 season touchdowns set by Jackie Parker in 1952 (or, the year before Jack Cristil called his first State game), and tied in 2007 by Anthony Dixon.
So even in a SEC dominated this preseason by great running backs, Ballard very much belonged at the Wynfrey Hotel Wednesday. Not coincidentally two of his premier peers, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas' Knile Davis, were part of Wednesday's program also. Naturally then Ballard found himself repeatedly—to put it mildly—asked to compare, contrast, and even rank the runners of the SEC.
"In my opinion, you can't put us 1-2-3-4 overall. They've all got God-given ability, that's for sure."
Ballard rightly rates that evaluation too, after finishing sixth in 2010 SEC rushing at 968 yards. Davis and Lattimore were 2-3 by the way, leading the returnees for '11. But Ballard leads every active SEC player, any position, in '10 touchdowns.
Besides, everyone knows Ballard would have finished a few SEC slots higher in yardage had he not shared a backfield with two other top-notch talents. One, of course, was his Media Day mate Relf, who pounded out 713 yards last fall with five touchdowns. In fact Relf is rated by some as the ‘best' running back on the Bulldog roster. Ballard smiled at the suggestion…which didn't mean he agreed.
"Ahhh, I ain't going to hurt his feelings! But he's pretty good, I'll give him that. He's a a big guy, the biggest back in the backfield. He's just a different presence in the backfield." So is sophomore LaDarius Perkins, a 566-yard ground gainer himself as a rookie with three scores, not to mention 247 receiving yards and three more TDs.
While it is a fun fancy to wonder what Ballard might do if he were a ‘featured' tailback, it is a moot point. Mullen likes getting the ball to every available playmaker so Ballard willingly takes his turns. Doing so last season kept him from reaching the 1,000-yard milestone, though had he been available for the UAB home game that mark would have fallen in time, yet Ballard sees it as a reasonable goal in '11 even with a rotation.
"I came up short of 1,000 yards, but I didn't even have like 180 or something carries. (186 to be exact.) I missed a game, then the first couple of games I had probably 15 carries in all. I think my stats were pretty good, but that all goes back to having a great offensive line. And I think the line this year is just as good. So I'd say expect good things."
How good? "The sky is the limit," Ballard stated, flatly. "I know it's not the SEC but in junior college I had 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns." Yeah, that would be good, alright.
Perhaps good enough to win first-team All-SEC against a glittering field of running stars. It won't be easy as media minds often are made up in preseason, and goodness knows Lattimore, Davis, Alabama's Trent Richardson, et.al., will own the summer headlines. Yet Ballard finds just a little extra incentive here.
"People are going to think what they're going to think. I know I'm working hard so that's all I can do," he said. "It's also a motivator. I guess you could look at it as indirect competition, know what I'm saying? We're competing against each other, but we're not, you know?" As in, Ballard is far more concerned to come away with a win than with whatever other numbers.
Mississippi State got a bunch of them last season, which only whets team appetites for more. "The whole expectation is we had a nine-win season last year and we look at it as a motivator. You don't want to get complacent." Not, Ballard added, that his coach would allow that.
"It's just about expectations. He tells us to reach our potential every day, to handle our business. We're 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds and he expects us to act like it." Obviously Mullen does not buy into the modern notion that these are still years for childish foolery, but demands his young men behave and work and perform as grown men.
Just as he trusted one quiet guy to man-up and hold forth like an old Dog for the media day pack. Ballard did just that…even if he made his exit, stage-left, with much the same speed as any left sideline sweep.