Badgers' Montee Ball savors the college life

MADISON, Wis. -- Even in video games, Montee Ball piles up the touchdowns.

During a friendly game of "Madden" on Friday, the Wisconsin running back uses the New York Giants to race out to a 21-0 lead over Badgers teammate Darius Feaster before the first quarter ends. Feaster quits in despair, saying he has to go to class, although he sticks around to watch Ball take on roommate Devin Smith in another game.

Ball's Giants then pour on 21 more first-half points against Smith's Pittsburgh Steelers, almost all on passing plays. Smith throws his controller in the air in disgust after giving up another long completion.

"Surprisingly, he can't run in this game," says Smith, a senior cornerback.

It's a scene probably playing out on hundreds of campuses the same way: three friends wasting away an afternoon talking trash over an Xbox game. The decor in the three-bedroom apartment Ball shares with Smith and another student looks like a typical college residence, too. A Wisconsin flag hangs on the living room wall above a decidedly dated, low-def RCA TV. "Hey, it was in my parents' garage," Ball says sheepishly.

Ball has few worries on this spring afternoon, but things could have been a lot different. The NFL draft is just a week away, and most people expected him to skip his senior season after he tied Barry Sanders' FBS record with 39 overall touchdowns and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards last season. Instead, he became the only draft-eligible 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist to return to school.

Already, he has heard some media pundits say he made a mistake, that he could have been the second back taken after Alabama's Trent Richardson. Yet he remains content with his decision and happy to be a college student, zipping around campus on his scooter, enjoying the views of Lake Mendota at Memorial Union and walking down Madison's famous State Street on the way to his apartment.

"I'm savoring a lot," he said between bites of a turkey sandwich at Memorial Union. "I've been catching myself going and visiting the library, which I'd only been to a couple of times since we have our own [football academic] center. I'm making an effort to step out of my comfort zone and really explore the campus and mingle with people."

Ball made the call to return a few days before the Rose Bowl, after receiving his evaluation from the NFL draft advisory board. Although he produced one of the greatest offensive seasons in college football history, pro scouts shrugged and pegged him as a third-rounder.

"That shocked me a little bit," Ball said. "I didn't understand it, honestly. I was first in every single [rushing] stat last year."

So he huddled with his parents, who supported his decision to come back. Montee Sr. and Melissa Ball moved from Wentzville, Mo., to just outside of Madison shortly after their son enrolled to be around for his college days, and they wanted to see him earn a degree. Ball -- who's 35 credit hours short of graduating -- recently took out an insurance policy through the NCAA in case of an injury this year.

The word from NFL personnel was that Ball looked too light to play running back at the next level, which was a bit ironic because he dropped from 230 pounds as a sophomore to a playing weight of 203 last year. Standing next to the freakishly strong Richardson during the Heisman ceremony did make Ball feel a little too small, though. He's experimenting with his weight this spring and is up to about 213 now.

He may be a little heavier, but he's just as quick as ever during spring practice. Maybe even quicker.

"He's definitely gotten faster," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "It's hard to imagine. But I really think his explosiveness has increased."

Ball didn't believe that until he saw it on film. He said experience and a better understanding of the game are allowing him to make faster decisions on his cuts and moves, and hitting the hole decisively was already one of his strengths. He's also working hard this spring on improving his pass-protection skills that were lacking at times last year, most obviously in the first Michigan State game. And Wisconsin is finding new ways to use him as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

So Ball could be a more complete running back this season. But will he be less appreciated?

He'll enter the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite, and expectations will be huge after his record-breaking 2011 season. After he scored 39 touchdowns last season, some will wonder what went wrong if he doesn't have 40 in 2012.

"The thing that's extremely unfortunate is, in a way I can only do worse than last year if you look at it statswise," Ball said. "If I come out this year and have 23 touchdowns and 1,400 yards, it's a really good season but nowhere near what I had last season.

"So I'm not as focused on stats. I'm just focused on being a better football player."

Wisconsin has had the luxury of holding Ball out of most contact work this spring. The Badgers have two very capable backups in James White and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon, who is turning heads during practice. But coaches say Ball has set the tone for the whole team with how hard he is working every day despite his superstar status.

"He could have rested on his laurels," first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "I've been impressed with the way he attacks every job, every drill."

Unlike some of his Heisman finalist counterparts, Ball is getting ready for Wisconsin's spring game this weekend instead of the NFL draft. He became friends with Richardson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck during the Heisman festivities in New York and texts with them often about their draft prospects.

Sure, part of him wishes he were in their shoes this week. But he has some goals left to accomplish in college. Ball needs just 18 rushing touchdowns and 23 total scores to tie the FBS career records held by Travis Prentice, who played at Miami (Ohio). He could challenge Ron Dayne for the title of best back in Wisconsin history. He'd also like another crack at a certain statue.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to get back to New York," he said. "I want to win the Heisman. I want to win as many awards as I can, personally. As a team, though, I want us to go undefeated and make it to the national championship game."

Ball is excited to watch the draft this weekend, but he's perfectly happy waiting another year to get there himself. For now, his NFL experience will involve only playing "Madden" with his friends on a lazy afternoon.