Measurables: 5-foot-10, 212 pounds.
2014 stats: 55 carries, 172 yards, one touchdown, nine receptions, 62 yards, *injured reserve.
Throughout his collegiate career at Wisconsin, Montee Ball set the NCAA on fire. He’s the record holder for most touchdowns in a season (39 tied), FBS career record holder for touchdowns (83), Heisman Trophy finalist (2011), 2012 Doak Walker Award winner (given to the nation’s top running back), and the list goes on.
This prolific production led John Elway to expend a second round pick in 2013 to bring Ball to Denver. But Ball’s arrival came with concerns around the league. Primarily, the concern was tire tread. Ball touched the football 1,522 times in college.
For a young player just beginning his professional career, that’s a lot of miles and wear and tear on his tires. However, Elway and the Denver Broncos took solace in knowing that despite his heavy workload, Ball was durable and rarely succumbed to injury.
As a rookie, Ball backed up Knowshon Moreno. He appeared in all 16 regular season games and really helped the record-setting Broncos offense grind it out down the stretch. In the last six games of the season, Ball averaged 5.8 yards per carry and really helped keep Moreno healthy going into the playoffs.
The future was looking bright. Following the 2013 season, the Broncos chose to let Moreno walk in free agency and the baton was passed to Ball—the team’s shiny new second round pick. On the heels of the Broncos record-setting 2013, the Ball-hype started early in 2014. He managed to hold off C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in training camp and preseason and was named the Broncos starter going forward.
Alas for Ball, the Broncos O-line began to slowly deteriorate. His first point-of-contact often came from behind the line of scrimmage. To add insult to injury, offensive coordinator Adam Gase stubbornly chose to stick with a scheme that opposing defenses seemed to have figured out. The vast majority of Ball’s rushes were out of the shotgun.
Compounding Ball’s struggles was an ill-advised weight gain. The former Badger put on 12 pounds to better handle his responsibilities as the Broncos workhorse and it backfired terribly.
Nevertheless, he ran hard. However, all of these factors conspired to hold his YPC average to just 3.5 through the first three games. What truly drove Ball’s second season off the rails was a groin injury in Week 5 that would eventually land him on injured reserve.
In the vacuum created by his injury, Ronnie Hillman rose to the occasion and rattled off several productive games, before injuring his foot in Week 9. From there, C.J. Anderson took the reins and never looked back. He compiled more than 1,000 total yards and double-digit touchdowns, which culminated in a Pro Bowl election.
A lot has changed for Montee Ball since training camp of 2014. Gone are the head coach and offensive coordinator who drafted him. The good news is that the guys Elway brought in to replace them, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison, respectively, know how to run the football. And they execute it through the zone blocking scheme—a system rich Broncos history.
The ZBS will be a great boon to Ball, who played and exceled in a similar scheme in college. The Broncos also ran many zone running concepts during his rookie season, which has been his most productive year as a pro.
In that regard, things are falling into place for Ball. Now that he’s healthy, the biggest obstacle he faces moving forward is Anderson. For the next couple of months, Ball will be mired in depth chart politics and will have to out-play Anderson to get first-team snaps.
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Kubiak said early in the offseason that Anderson would be the starter going into OTAs. And he stuck to that mantra, although in an interesting development, Ball split many of those first-team reps. Ball has dropped those 12 pounds he gained in 2014 and is at his collegiate playing weight of around 212 pounds.
He already feels better—more like himself. The running back battle will be an interesting one to watch when training camp kicks off on July 31st. I would be surprised to see Ball leapfrog Anderson on the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to see the field.
I expect there to be a 65/35 snap ratio, with Anderson receiving the lion's share. Some have gone so far as to predict a 1a-1b type of workload for the two running backs. Regardless, Ball will get his opportunities. Factoring in Kubiak’s system, Ball’s health and playing weight, I expect him to be very effective in 2015.
In the video below, Brandon Perna celebrates the Broncos defeating the Chiefs yet again in 2014 and recounts how Montee Ball contributed to Denver's streak of sweeping Kansas City for three-straight years.