ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When Montee Ball is on a roll, he is a downhill runner in conversation. The words come fast, they are decisive and strung together like a freight train.
But asked, other than his rookie season with the Denver Broncos when the last time he wasn’t The Guy at running back, the starter, No. 1 on the depth chart, that brought a sudden stop, a small pause for some reflection.
“No. 2?" Ball asked. “That last time? Well, it would have to be my sophomore year. Yes, my sophomore year."
During his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, Ball’s 996 yards rushing for the Badgers made him third on the team behind James White’s 1,052 yards and John Clay’s 1,012 yards. But Ball, who was the Broncos’ starting running back when the 2014 season opened, finds himself at No. 2 at the moment behind C.J. Anderson.
And that is a fact of football life Ball says he understands, but is certainly not content to live with, at least not without plenty of roll-up-the-sleeves effort. When Ball suffered a pulled groin early in the Broncos’ Week 5 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, his 2014 season was essentially cratered at that moment.
Ball briefly tried to play again six games later – in the team’s Nov. 9 loss to the St. Louis Rams – but it was clear on the Broncos’ opening possession of the game that Ball was not ready to play. Soon after that game, he was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
And while Ball was away, Anderson certainly did play, with 648 rushing yards over the Broncos’ final six games of the regular season. So when the Broncos’ new coaching staff was hired this past January, it didn't take long for coach Gary Kubiak to say that Anderson should arrive to the team’s offseason workouts as the No. 1 back.
Anderson has indeed taken the bulk of the snaps with the starting offense, but Ball’s on-field work already indicates he’s intent on creating a split-carry scenario at worst and regain the starting job at best.
“As of right now I’m second; I’m behind C.J.," Ball said. “But I’m sure it’s going to be a 1-A, 1-B style and we’re looking forward to it. … It’s been a long time since I didn’t stay in the No. 1 spot when he and I began there and it’s different, but the only thing I can do is work and fight back to get the No. 1 spot. But let’s say I do fight back and get the No. 1 spot, they can’t keep C.J. on the bench based off what he did. They most definitely have to use both of us."
“We’re pushing each other as a group," Anderson said. “ … We’re all pushing each other and we all know we have the talent and the ability to make this team go. We all feel like it doesn’t run without us. If we go out there and give it our all and give it our 100, everyone follows behind us.”
Ball found 2014 frustrating enough to change his own offseason workout regimen.Ball, 24, said he had to take a preparation page or two from the Broncos’ more veteran players after last season’s frustration.
And that, in part, entailed a flexibility regimen that included pilates.
“Of course, I have added that," Ball said. “But I’ve added a lot more flexibility work overall. I probably stretch at least twice, three times a day. It just makes my body feel so much better, even if you don’t have football that day. I’ll just stretch. I just feel so much better when I get out of bed, brushing my teeth, just random stuff. I’m a lot lighter, lot more agile, just walking around the house."
Asked if that was something he would have considered important to his development as a player four years ago, or even as an NFL rookie in 2013, when he arrived to the Broncos as a second-round draft pick, Ball added with a smile: “No, most definitely not. Not for a moment."
The carrot in all of this is substantial for each of the Broncos’ running backs. Kubiak has promised the Broncos will run the ball more in 2015, and Kubiak’s history of production with the zone scheme is littered with a trail of 1,000-yard rushers who benefited from their own decisiveness to make the right cuts and the coaching staff’s ability to make it work through a variety of linemen and running backs.
“We all love the run game, we love the system, we love the fullback," Ball said. “ … It looks great. I mean, the zone scheme, they are the gurus of it. And something I think I really excel in is a zone-blocking scheme. Which is just do the proper footwork, press the ball into the line of scrimmage, make a quick, decisive decision and just go – north and south. So, I’m just going to keep at it, keep training once we finish up with our OTAs next week and go from there, put in the work."