How Kalen Ballage's patience set him up for big opportunity

DAVIE, Fla. -- One day after a Miami Dolphins practice about halfway through the season, veteran running back Frank Gore pulled Kalen Ballage off to the side for a one-on-one talk. It was one of several they've had this season, but this one was different because Gore could tell that Ballage was a bit frustrated.

Gore and Drake were dominating the game reps. Veterans Brandon Bolden and Senorise Perry were special-teams stalwarts. Ballage, the promising 2018 fourth-round pick, was often lucky to be active on the game-day roster.

Ballage just wanted an opportunity to show what he's got. He'll finally get that chance Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. His season-long waiting game makes this moment even sweeter, and he owes short, subtle lessons from Gore for helping him get through the dark days.

"I've learned patience from him. A lot of patience," Ballage said of Gore. "On the field, off the field, trusting the plan that God has for you. Watching him and how he leads by example is special."

The running back depth chart ahead of Ballage wasn't in his favor, but he did what coach Adam Gase called an "unbelievable" job on scout team, to the point that the Dolphins' starting defense was struggling to contain him. He went one speed and finished nearly every run in the end zone.

"There was a time there where he could have mentally flipped a switch to where it would’ve been really hard for him. Sometimes when you’re a rookie, you don’t understand why you’re not playing and [wondering], ‘How do I get up?'" Gase said. "He just never wavered. He kept grinding."

Gore is now on injured reserve with a foot sprain. So it will be Ballage and Kenyan Drake sharing the workload in Gore's absence in Miami's last two games, with Ballage likely to see the largest boost.

Last Sunday, Ballage had his breakout party, rushing for 123 yards on 12 carries, including a highlight 75-yard touchdown. On that score, Ballage hit a top speed of 21.87 mph -- the fastest by any Dolphins running back in the past three seasons. Drake had just one carry for six yards to go with three catches for 28 yards.

Drake, who was expected to be the Dolphins' lead back coming into the 2018 season, has become Miami's receiving and third-down back. He's expected to continue in that role.

Gase's use of Drake has been a common question throughout the season. Drake is nursing shoulder and ankle injuries, but Gase said injuries weren't a factor in his playing time, and Ballage was "our best option there."

When asked if he's happy about his playing time, Drake said: "That's not my job." He was among those to praise Ballage's performance on Sunday.

"Ballage was playing fairly well, and we had some protection issues early where they both took their turns. It just kind of worked out the way it did," Gase said. "There were a couple of times where we tried to dial some stuff up for Kenyan, but we either allowed a sack or a pressure, or something broke down to where we couldn’t get the ball to him.”

Simply put, Ballage has earned Gase's trust that he will hold up in all aspects of a game. The rookie from Arizona State has shown a better understanding of his responsibility since a well-publicized rookie moment in training camp.

On Aug. 12, Ryan Tannehill kicked him out of the huddle for missing a blitz responsibility. Four months later, Ballage was trusted to handle the bigger workload, and Tannehill has a different take.

“Kalen has been huge for us. His progression throughout OTAs, throughout training camp, buying in and getting in the playbook and learning what to do, now you’re starting to see that [now that] he’s getting some opportunities in the backfield on offense," Tannehill said. "He has the size to run tough and get the tough yards, but then he also has the breakaway speed to be able to finish those long runs. He’s kind of a rare combo in that regard of size and speed."