Kalen Ballage hoping to build on banner debut with Chargers

Kalen Ballage paid instant dividends in his Chargers debut Sunday, rushing for 69 yards and a touchdown. Alex Gallardo/AP

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Los Angeles Chargers running back Kalen Ballage is not a household name. Not even close.

He was called up by the Chargers from the practice squad Saturday and wasn't even listed on the flip card. But he made an impact, something he's been trying to do in the NFL since he was drafted out of Arizona State in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins in 2018.

Ballage -- who once scored eight touchdowns in a game for the Sun Devils -- made his presence felt Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, giving the stagnant running game a spark by rushing 15 times for 69 yards and a touchdown after Justin Jackson went down in the first quarter with a knee injury. His longest run was a 21-yarder.

Jackson's injury opened up the passing game to the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Ballage, who added two receptions for 15 yards and made a play for further playing time in a Chargers backfield that has been in flux since lead back Austin Ekeler was injured in Week 4.

"I was excited about it and appreciative of the opportunity," Ballage said after the game. "I pride myself on being prepared, even though it's kind of a short-notice thing last couple of weeks ... make sure I know my stuff."

Before Ballage came to the Chargers, he was traded from the Dolphins -- for whom he rushed for 326 yards and four touchdown in two seasons -- to the New York Jets on Aug. 27 for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2021. However, Ballage failed his physical with a hamstring injury, voiding the trade. He was waived the Dolphins on Sept. 5 and signed with the Jets 10 days later.

Ballage had his share of issues with the winless Jets, missing some blocking assignments in front of Sam Darnold. He had 80 total yards for the Jets (13 rushing and 67 receiving) in three games before being waived on Oct. 5. He signed with the Chargers four days later and, after passing his COVID-19 screenings, was on the practice squad before his Saturday call-up.

But Ballage, who had 84 total yards Sunday, insists the troubles he had with the Jets are over now that he's with rookie sensation quarterback Justin Herbert. That's exactly what a change can do for a player. Especially when a team's top running back (Ekeler) is injured and you work hard to fit in, which by all accounts, Ballage has.

"I prepared all week, Everything I did all week I did [Sunday]," he said.

Chargers Anthony Lynn was impressed enough by Ballage's preparation to put him into the game and give him significant work, as Ballage had 17 touches and was targeted on an 18th play.

"Kalen showed up [Sunday]," Lynn said. "He's learning our system. Him, [Troymaine] Pope, Justin Jackson, we've got a good group of backs we can build some things around. I thought we did some good things."

The impression Ballage has made has carried over into the Chargers' running back room.

"I love the way he plays the game," says one of his competitors, rookie Joshua Kelley, who had 59 combined yards on 14 touches against the Raiders. "He's a great professional ... he'll be great for us for, sure."

Ballage was raised in the small town of Peyton, Colorado, and was highly recruited out of high school, choosing ASU and the sunshine over staying home. He was a versatile threat for the Sun Devils, rushing for 1,984 yards and 27 touchdowns in four years while catching 82 passes for 684 yards and another two scores. He has a hunger to be good in the league, and maybe he's found his niche in Los Angeles where he didn't in Miami and New York.

Ballage has the bloodlines for success, as his father, Reggie, played for Colorado before playing professionally the CFL and the USFL. His uncle, Pat, was a safety at Notre Dame before playing briefly for the Indianapolis Colts. His mother and aunt also have athletic backgrounds.

His short NFL journey has been winding, but Ballage has remained a humble and respectful throughout the process. He just hopes that his debut with the Chargers is the first step in finding stable NFL ground.