MADISON - Ray Ball and his teammates were able to don full pads for the first time on August 14, the fifth day of fall camp. It was a day the redshirt senior had circled on his calendar.
Buried on the depth chart throughout the first four years of his careers, Ball finally broke through on the first-team unit at the expense of now-junior center Dan Voltz’s injuries in the Big Ten championship game and Outback Bowl, an opportunity that opened up his spot at left guard.
Ball has been waiting for such a chance throughout his tenure. It's the reason why 10 days ago was so important to him. Not only was this fall his first real chance to lock down his position on a massively retooled offensive line, it was a real test to prove to a new head coach in Paul Chryst and new offensive line coach in Joe Rudolph that he had the abilities and talent to be a starter.
“It has been great,” Ball said of adjustment to Rudolph. “He is constantly not only on my tail but everyone else’s tail. Once you show him you can do something he expects nothing less of that. That is one thing that I like of Coach Rudolph - he’s a pusher. He’s constantly on us. The one thing that I found out is that he truly does genuinely care about us as individuals and wanting us to get better not only on the football field but also off of it.”
Less than two weeks before the opener, however, Ball is still battling for his right to start. Throughout the first two weeks of camp, Ball was battling true freshman Jon Dietzen and redshirt junior Walker Williams. Heading into last Saturday’s scrimmage, Dietzen was out with an injury and Williams was forced to move to right tackle because of injuries to others.
But in the scrimmage, redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi took the majority of the reps with the first-team line and Ball was put on the second team. The reasoning? According to Chryst, Kapoi had done enough good things in recent practices to warrant more opportunities.
With the opener against No.3 Alabama fast approaching, redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Marz, Voltz and redshirt freshman right guard Michael Deiter are the only ones to have their position locked up.
After battling injuries throughout the second half of spring practices, Ball has been healthy and hasn’t missed practices, which is the best advantage he has going for him on a battered and bruised unit that has at least four players out.
“I feel more healthy now,” said Ball. “That’s one thing Coach Rudolph and myself said we were going to focus on, so I’m making sure I’m getting healthy and fully prepared so I can be ready for the start of the season.”
Ball is one of the more experienced players on Wisconsin’s line. Not only is he one of only two fifth-year seniors, Ball has played in 31 games but it has mostly come on special teams and in mop up duty. That lack of experience was exploited in the blowout loss to Ohio State but was corrected a month later when he suited up against Auburn.
“I definitely learned that you have to be reliable, minimum mistakes to none that’s the goal for everyone,” Ball said. “Coach Chryst hit this in the team meeting room. When you are practicing so much at a high intensity, when you get to the game it slows down a bit. I was actually a guy who was able to visualize that and throughout all the practicing and all the repetition. You tend to have perfection of your craft you could say, and once you are at that part things do slow down and you are not overthinking things.”
While he’s been able to avoid the injury bug, Ball knows he’s still in a position battle. With the coaching staff admitting this week will be critical for determining the starting unit, Ball’s pure focus is becoming a consistent player from play to play.
“I know that I’m not the 100 percent player that I want to be,” Ball said. “There’s always room for improvement in every step, from learning the playbook to the point where you know it inside and out and you can do it blindfolded. Working on your footwork, working on my hands (is) one thing that I need to improve on, there’s always room for improvement.”