Broncos' Montee Ball lighter and leaner, and he must compete for his old job

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As Montee Ball closes in on a return to the Denver Broncos lineup, he knows he was the starter when he suffered a right groin injury in the team’s Oct. 5 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

And he says he knows, four games later to this point, that he’s not the starter now. It’s Ronnie Hillman’s job. It's been that way for the last month. Ball knows what it felt like when he passed Hillman on the depth chart this past offseason, and knows what it feels like now as Hillman has put up the team’s only two 100-yard rushing games in Ball’s absence.

“He should [be the starter]. He definitely should," Ball said Wednesday. “The run game has been a lot better since he’s been in there. So … I’m not going to sit here and lie to myself. So when I come back, I’m going to contribute as much as possible and try to get that spot back."

Wednesday’s practice was the first time Ball had taken part in a team workout since the injury. He took part in the practice – the Broncos were in pads – on a limited basis and said he felt “great" following the workout.

Ball had averaged 3.1 yards per carry before the injury, including two games – against the Indianapolis Colts and the Seattle Seahawks – when he averaged less than three yards per carry. In the last four games, even including a 10-carry, 16-yard game against the New England Patriots this past Sunday, Hillman has averaged 4.4 yards per carry. He rushed for 100 yards against the New York Jets and 109 against the San Diego Chargers.

“It was [Ball’s] first day back in a while,’’ Broncos head coach John Fox said. “He’s worked very hard … he looks good."

Ball also said Wednesday the team’s medical staff had not yet made a decision about his availability for Sunday’s game in Oakland.

“I understand, I completely understand what it is, that it’s something you’ve got to work for, what was taken from me," Ball said. “He did a great job taking it from me and I understand what it is. I’m a man and I understand that he’s been doing a great job. When I come back, I’m going to work extremely hard to get that back."

The Broncos will gauge Ball’s ability to participate through the week as they make their final decisions on the 46 players in uniform Sunday.

“I’m going to try to play as soon as possible," Ball said. "But if it’s not this week, if it’s not next week, it’s not the week after that, whenever it is, I’ll be 100 percent."

And part of that “100 percent" is getting back to his weight when the Broncos selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft instead of the weight he was playing at in the Broncos’ first three games.

Ball had looked slower to the hole earlier this season than in his rookie season, when he averaged 4.7 yards per carry as the team’s second-leading rusher. And Ball confirmed those visuals Wednesday when he said he was playing at 224 pounds in those first three games. He lost four pounds following his appendectomy in the preseason, but said he gained it back before playing in the regular-season opener.

Ball said he’s now at 212 pounds and plans to stay there in the foreseeable future. As a point of reference, Ball weighed 214 pounds at the scouting combine before the 2013 draft and weighed in at 214 again at his pro day at the University of Wisconsin a week later.

“I can move better, hit the holes faster … I feel a lot more comfortable at this weight," Ball said. “I didn’t like it [at 224 pounds] … I’m going to stick right here, stick where I’m at now and will most definitely show the difference."