ST. LOUIS — Montee Ball has something to prove.
The Denver Broncos running back has been told by his position coach not to return to the Mile High City trying to prove himself, that he already showed what he could do as a rookie backup in 2013 on the team’s run to Super Bowl XLVIII.
But coming off a second season that saw him lose his starting job to C.J. Anderson, average just 3.1 yards per carry and end prematurely after five games because of a groin injury, Ball thinks he has plenty to prove going into his third NFL season.
“Obviously in this business you have to keep showing it,” he said. “So I didn’t have the opportunity last season, but I’m going to come back, work my way back up to the starting position and show everybody what type of back that I am.”
To achieve that, the 24-year-old former Heisman Trophy finalist opted to return to his hometown this offseason, where he has been working with his old personal trainer four days a week to improve his speed, quickness, strength, agility and hands. In addition, Ball has been doing Pilates twice a week to improve his mobility and flexibility.
It was an easy decision for Ball to call his old trainer, Dan O’Donnell, who years earlier had helped turn the three-star prospect into the St. Louis area’s all-time rushing leader during his time at Timberland High School in Wentzville, MO. Ball went on to rush for 5,140 yards and score 83 touchdowns in his four years at the University of Wisconsin before the Broncos picked him in the second round (No. 58 overall) of the 2013 draft.
“He trained me in high school,” Ball said of O’Donnell. “He knows what I need. So coming back and working with him is a blessing because I believe that he’s gonna make me the running back that I’m supposed to be.”
The 75-minute workout O’Donnell prescribed for Ball during a recent mid-January session inside the Elite Football Academy building in suburban St. Louis included some of the trainer’s go-to moves.
There were ladder drills to work on his foot speed, quickness and agility, barbell back squats to strengthen Ball’s lower body and base and then hip extension on a machine to strengthen his legs.
Then O’Donnell had Ball move on to upper-body work with TRX push-ups and regular push-ups, with each set punctuated with a series of catching drills, where Ball showed off good hands for a player with just 29 receptions in 21 career NFL games.
After that, it was more ladder drills and some low hurdles to work on his side-by-side change-of-direction skills, with each run followed by Ball catching more passes from O’Donnell, a former kicker at Division II Chadron State College in the late 1990s.
O’Donnell has followed Ball’s career closely over the years.
He was in the stands at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in mid-November when the Broncos played the host Rams and Ball returned from his groin injury to make his hometown debut.
That turned out to be one of the low points of Ball’s second season when he re-injured the groin that had kept him out for more than a month. The running back tweaked the injury early, felt like it was fine and returned to the game only to hurt it again when running a pass route. That turned out to be the final play of his season.
“It was tough,” Ball said. “It was tough. Going to the sideline once it happened again, holding back tears and stuff like that because I had so many friends, family, here up in the stands, wearing my jersey, that took time out of their day, took money out of their pockets to come watch me play, so it kind of hurt a little bit. But I believe everything happens for a reason. I’m not playing the woe-is-me card.”
As Knowshon Moreno’s backup as a rookie in 2013, Ball racked up 704 total yards (559 rushing, 145 receiving), averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns.
But in his truncated second NFL season included just 55 carries for 172 yards rushing, an average of only 3.13 yards per carry, and one touchdown, which came in the Broncos’ season-opening 31-24 win against the Indianapolis Colts. He caught nine passes for 62 yards.
Ball doesn’t have much interest in looking back at his second season. He’s too focused on looking forward to the next one and getting back on the field and competing for the starting spot.
That won’t be easy because of the emergence of Anderson, an undrafted second-year running back who racked up 1,173 total yards and 10 touchdowns and went to the Pro Bowl. But Ball is looking forward to the competition.
“First off, hats off to C.J. because no matter what he seized the opportunity,” Ball said. “I told him, seize this opportunity because you have a great opportunity ahead of you. With me being out you have the opportunity to take the spot and he did. He did a great job with that. I like it.”
Ball is smiling now.
“I like the competition that’s coming because I think that’s what drives the team and that’s what makes everybody better around us,” he added. “If we’re working to become the starter, working, working, working, we’re going to keep that offense going and the defense is going to feed off the offense, the offense is going to feed off the defense and we’re going to be a better team.”
Ball is doing everything he can to prepare for his return to Denver.
He will continue to work with O’Donnell and doing Pilates with Kim Wallis, whose impressive client list includes St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy as well as several St. Louis Blues players. He’s moved past the groin injury that ended his sophomore season in the NFL and looking forward.
“The injury, I believe, is no longer there,” Ball said. “It hasn’t bothered me since. Obviously you don’t want to hurt it. I don’t want to go into our weight lifting or conditioning fatigued. That’s why I love working with Dan because he knows exactly what I need. Out of these couple weeks I want to just get back in shape, cut some fat, get back lean, and just go in looking like a different player. Holding myself different. My body posture. All that. Because I’ve got to do something this year.”
Ball may be more excited than anybody after the Broncos’ coaching change from John Fox to Gary Kubiak.
As the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator this past season, Kubiak oversaw an offensive unit that ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing with former journeyman Justin Forsett racking up 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I had the opportunity to talk to Coach Kubiak. He called me,” Ball said. “He told me he’s excited to coach me, excited for me to be in the system. The zone-blocking system, I guess that’s what’s coming in. I did that all throughout college. C.J.’s going to fit the system as well. I think all the running backs will. We’re excited. He’s excited. Just as long as everyone’s excited to get this thing rolling and to get us back to the Super Bowl, I think it’s going to work for everybody. Coach Kubiak is a great coach. He’s going to put everybody in the right position to succeed.”
Kubiak’s coaching history, as the Houston Texans’ head coach from 2006-13 as well as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator and the Broncos’ OC (1995-2005) includes working with some of the league’s best backs.
Arian Foster led the NFL with 1,616 yards rushing in 2010 with the Texans. Terrell Davis racked up 2,008 yards on the ground in 1998, which was the Broncos’ second Super Bowl season.
Ball and Kubiak talked about those running backs during their phone call. “He told me about Arian Foster,” Ball said. “He told me about when he was with T.D.”
“He’s been around great running backs,” Ball said. “It was comforting to get a phone call from him saying that. I was very excited to talk to him and hear from him and listen to him explain to me how he’s excited to coach me knowing that I’ll be able to fit the system perfectly.”
John Elway, the Broncos’ Executive Vice President of football operations/general manager, was asked about Ball during his press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine last week.
Elway had positive things to say about the running back.
“I think Montee just had a tough year with injuries last year,” Elway told reporters. “He had that groin injury and could never really come back off (it). I still think that Montee’s a very good running back and it’s just a matter of getting him in the right spot, right position, have him be healthy, have him get some confidence. In this offense we’re going to use more than one back and I believe that Montee can be very helpful to the football team and do good things for us.”
Elway also spoke about Ball’s fit with Kubiak’s new offensive system.
“Montee’s still a north and south runner,” he said. “Really any running offense that is successful has backs running north and south. That’s what Montee can do. He can stick his foot in the ground and get north and south. I don’t think he’ll have any problems adjusting to the new offense.”
It didn’t take long for Elway’s comments to get back to Ball.
Then those words made their way to Ball’s Instagram account.
Though he already had some extra motivation for this offseason after his phone call with Kubiak — not that he needed any after how his season unfolded — Elway’s comments in Indianapolis can certainly add even more fuel to his fire.
Ball is driven to show what he can do at this level and he’s well aware that after just two years there are people that aren’t sure he can be successful in the NFL. That kind of criticism comes with being a high-round draft pick after a memorable college career.
“Yeah, you hear that all over the place,” Ball said. “Obviously it hurts at times reading it, but sometimes I like it because no matter if you’re very successful, you’re still going to have people doubt you. So, for me, I like it because it gets me out here to run the sprints, it gets me to run the extra sprint whenever I’m close to throwing up, about to puke and stuff like that. I love the motivation because I love proving people wrong.”
Yeah, Ball still has plenty to prove.
That’s what brought him back to his hometown. What reunited him with his old trainer, O’Donnell. Why he’s grinding out these workouts and doing everything he can to get his body ready when he returns to work in early April in Denver.
“Ultimately it comes down to how bad that I want it,” Ball said. “I want it pretty bad, man. I do. I’m not going in — like my running backs coach said — don’t go in trying to play outside your shoes. But, for me, I want to prove to myself that I belong in this league.”