So, how did Ballard celebrate getting on the scoreboard so quickly and dramatically as senior collegian? Not much at all. "I was just kind of surprised," he admits. "I stood there and didn't know what to do! I mean I heard the crowd but when I scored I didn't even turn around and look at my teammates. I was looking straight-forward in the bushes, it was unreal!"
Now, surprise seems strange for a fellow who'd regularly scored TDs in high school and junior college. Ballard was just a bit dazed, not really confused. "It was more like man, I've done got my first one. My first D-I collegiate touchdown." Not only that but the first of many. Twenty to be specific as Ballard would rush across goal lines 19 times in 2010, and get another touchdown on a forward-pitch that officially counted as a pass reception.
Even if Ballard could have no clue he would shatter the MSU touchdown record by New Years Day, he did know something good was underway as he stared into those bushes.
"That one right there got my feet wet. And every time I was out there I was wanting more."
Ballard can expect to score more this senior season as the starting tailback. Whether he cracks 1,000 yards, a mark he fell just short of last fall, is a reasonable question. Not for lack of ability of course as Ballard would be feature back in a lot of programs. Here at MSU, now, sophomore LaDarius Perkins must get his totes too…and the top Dog of the bunch is the guy taking the direct snap from center. For that matter senior Rob Elliott has had an excellent camp and is very much a rotation runner.
No question the head coach is far more confident in these ball-haulers this preseason. "I felt good about the situation going into last year," Coach Dan Mullen said. "But I haven't seen them do it in games. We've seen them do it in games."
None more so or more often or more consistently than Ballard, who is on the Maxwell and Walker awards watch lists going into the season. Even with the surety of sharing the ball Ballard still believes he can put the numbers up in bigger fashion for a basic reason. He knows the offense in entirety now.
"When I first got here everybody had a year on me so I knew I had to come in and prove I could. Now, I kind of know it like the back of my hand, and my focus is on the other things that make myself better. Like what the O-line is doing, what everybody else is doing. I know my job, I need to know what everybody else is doing around me so I know certain moves to make."
Speaking of the line…the real changes in MSU's offense this season in there are few if any serious questions in the running/throwing/catching aspects. Blocking is everyone's top topic, not from lack of numbers and talent but just the inevitable adjustments of losing Derek Sherrod and J.C. Bringone and their eight combined varsity letters. Ballard, though, foresees no fall-off.
"Look who we've got, it's basically the same O-line that moved people around. And James Carmon has been real solid so I don't think it's going to be too much of a difference. I feel good. I know they can get the job done. It takes a load off me, it's less I have to think about."
Then again Ballard's to-do list is long enough anyway. Here in year-three of the spread system State is still upgrading areas to meet Mullen's ambitions. Such as, backfield blocking. Not merely pass protection before running a hot-route either, but getting downfield and taking out a supporting safety or the like so a fellow Dog can run free. So this camp Ballard has worked at the blocking more than ever.
"Yeah, because running is going to come natural, know what I'm saying? You need to work on the things that make the whole picture better. You can run the ball but being able to do all the small things that makes the team better."
This also emphasizes something else Ballard has learned about Mullen's idea of an offense. Everybody has a job. There are no decoys, much less Dog drifting around unoccupied. Not in this gameplan, and not tailbacks. "Because you only have the ball so many times a game," Ballard points out. "Other plays have got to be doing something else and most of the time that's blocking. So that's very important.
"It takes eleven people to execute the play and that's what we look for. Especially in high school, if you were the man that's all you had to be and not anything else. But here you have to do your job."
ALL GONE: Mississippi State announced that the last available student tickets were sold shortly after noon Monday. Some 8,800 of those were sold Saturday morning at the stadium as part of Fan Day, and the rest of the 11,000 total ducats reserved at DWS for students were snapped up this morning.
Among them was a friend of linebacker Brandon Wilson, who had not been in the overnight party outside the stadium. "Because he figured there would be some left over. He came this morning and he got his tickets," Wilson said. A few hundred other students were later arriving today and had to leave empty-handed and unhappy.
Wilson feels for those who won't be inside the stadium on game days this season, but is excited by the show of such support and what it bodes for program permanence now. ""With the atmosphere now I would definitely say the consistency is there. I went by and there were tents everywhere and thousands camped out. So I would definitely say the consistency is here."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Fellow linebacker Cameron Lawrence also got a look at the crowd packing a corner campus Friday evening awaiting ticket turns. "It was after practice and a bunch of players went to the volleyball game. I drove past the junction and that was a tremendous sight just to see all the fans out there, having a good time and getting ready for the season.
"It kind of gave me a little butterflies because I'm getting ready for the season as well." Observing the fan frenzy was just a reminder to Lawrence, a junior, how things have changed in just a couple of seasons under current MSU management.
"When Coach Mullen came in he was wanting to take this program to a whole new level and that's exactly what he's doing."
What the Dogs continued doing today is polishing plans for Thursday's opener at Memphis. In some respects it will be a ‘home' game for the Coldwater native…make that natives as older brother Addison has also been dealing with ticket demand from family and friends.
"There's no telling how many we'll have there!" Cam said. "We've going to have plenty because we live about 45 minutes from Memphis so we'll have a crew of people up there." Perhaps even their own cheering section of sorts? "I hope so, that'd be nice!"
Although specific scouting information on the Tigers, in their second season under alumnus Larry Porter, is not abundant, linebacker Lawrence has some general expectations of Memphis. "A lot of young guys," he said. "They've always had a lot of talent but maybe not the experience they had in the past. I think that's what I've picked up a lot." And two, something which he finds good news, is that Porter has switched from pro-style offense of '10 to a spread-type attack this fall.
Even if it means none of last year's game tape is useful now, at least the Dog defense has a schematic idea what to expect now since they practice against spreads all spring and training camp, not to mention many of the regular season weeks as well.
Besides, Lawrence said, "All offenses are going to run the same plays but they may be out of different formations. So if you have your eyes on the right keys and do what you've been taught everything will be fine."
Something else State finds just fine is opening the season ranked #20 by Associated Press. It is the first time since 2001 a Bulldog team kicked off with a number in front of their name. And while ending a year ranked—as State did '10 with a #15 rating—means more, preseason respect counts in player minds too.
"You know, it's not supposed to…but of course it does!" said Lawrence. "Going up against a team supposed to be a top team in the country you're going to want to be on you're A-game. Because if you don't do something right you're going to get exposed in the SEC." Or outside it for that matter. Because this game is easily the most-wanted matchup on Memphis' schedule, in or out of conference.
OBLIGATORY COMMENT: Yes, somebody had to say it this time of year, and Dan Mullen did calling this week time for teams to ‘go hit somebody else.' At least Lawrence buys into the cliché, as a good defensive Dog should.
"Oh, no doubt about that. I think going on 34, 35 practices including spring we've been just hitting our offense and our teammates. We're ready to just unleash the fury on somebody else."
INJURY REPORT: Mullen rarely offers updates on injuries, especially prior to the first game when the team has not been observed for a few weeks. Today though the coach listed four Dogs on the hurt-list for the opener.
Rotation WR Ricco Sanders, reportedly a hurt knee, and reserve S Ivan Muniz were classified as doubtful; but so was freshman DB Taveze Calhoun who is actually out after a mid-month procedure on his right shoulder. He will redshirt.
Backup LB Chris Hughes is questionable to Mullen, the status hinging on how the soph performs in practice Monday.