Kalen Ballage emerges as X factor in Dolphins' two-headed backfield

Second-year running back Kalen Ballage had 191 yards on 36 rushes for one touchdown in the 2018 season. He's aiming for more production in 2019. Carl Juste/Miami Herald via AP

DAVIE, Fla. -- It was a running joke in fantasy football circles and on Twitter that the reason Kenyan Drake has yet to become a NFL feature back was because Adam Gase had a vendetta against him. Why else would Miami's former coach play Frank Gore, 35, over a then 24-year-old Drake last season?

Yet for the third consecutive offseason -- this time with a new coaching staff -- Drake is expected to be featured in a multiback offense where the hottest hand could lead the backfield on any given Sunday.

This realization is less a condemnation of Drake, who is a great talent with probably the most explosive big-play ability on the roster, as much as it is what Miami believes Kalen Ballage can do with increased reps.

As of early August, neither player should be projected to be the Dolphins' three-down feature back in 2019. The backfield could be like it was with Gore and Drake in 2018.

But that's all up to Ballage, who is the X factor in this equation. Dolphins running backs coach Eric Studesville says none of Ballage's potential will matter unless he proves it on the field, though.

"I'm not worried about it," Ballage said. "If we're a winning team, both of us are going to be able to make a whole bunch of plays and get a lot of individual stats."

Drake said: "I know who I am and what I can control. It's all about controlling the controllables. There is only one ball."

The two lead running backs enter the season with plenty to prove along with plenty of questions.

The question for Drake, Miami's 2016 third-round pick from Alabama, is his durability, or better yet, ability to carry a significant load. His production has been strong in limited reps. But Drake hasn't had more than 133 carries in a season since high school. He cut out red meat and fast food this offseason and as a result, lost five pounds of fat.

"I looked at Frank last year, and he gave me a lot of wisdom in terms of his ability to be in a very grinding position at running back and still be able to do the things he does every day -- how he eats and treats his body, the things he does on and off the field," Drake said. "That's something that I wanted to implement into my career."

For Ballage, Miami's 2018 fourth-round pick from Arizona State, he checks every height-weight-speed box but has struggled to consistently have his physicality match his stature. His 75-yard touchdown against Minnesota last December excited the fan base, but he was often taken down by the first defender on many of his other touches. Ballage has also leaned on advice from Gore, and his work this offseason has shown improvement.

"[Ballage] can find holes. He sees reads. He runs through way more contact than you think. He had three or four runs out here in camp where he broke through wrap-up tackles. He's so big and strong," Studesville said. "But the one thing I keep encouraging him to do is utilize his size and strength. Sometimes he wants to be a smaller back, but you're 230, so go use that 230."

A lot will be made over who will be the Dolphins starter -- and make no mistake, Ballage has a real chance to earn that role. He has run with the starters more than Drake through four days of training camp, which depending on who you ask holds somewhere between no significance and a little significance.

Either way, there's room for Drake and Ballage to eat in this new Dolphins offense. Both, if healthy, should get career highs in touches and yardage. Ballage did suffer an injury Tuesday and missed practice Wednesday, but the injury isn't considered significant nor should he be sidelined long.

So how should we project the Dolphins backfield? Think New England Patriots-style running-back-by-committee and possibly a less-extreme version of how James White and Sony Michel shared that backfield. An early timeshare prediction could be 45/40/15 touch split for Drake, Ballage and the Dolphins secondary backs (Mark Walton, Myles Gaskin, Chandler Cox and Kenneth Farrow), respectively.

Dolphins backs had 320 carries (20 per game) and 77 receptions (just under five a game) last season.

Gase's offense ranked last in the NFL averaging 55 plays per game. The Patriots (where Dolphins offensive coordinator and playcaller Chad O'Shea spent the past 10 years) ranked No. 2, averaging 69 plays a game.

O'Shea said his favorite part of the offense so far has been how they have established the run effectively during practice, an early hint of what this team's identity could be.

"Whenever you're talking about a rotation, that means you have some depth at the position, so that's what excites me," O'Shea said.

With a conservative estimate, we can expect a 10% increase in plays, carries and running back receptions next season based on the staff's tendencies and plans. That would put Drake in the 200-touch range and Ballage in the 175-touch range.

But these are just educated thoughts about a battle that Studesville describes as fluid, with the onus on each back to earn a bigger slice of the pie.

"I'd rather have multiple guys I can trust to get it done than just one," Studesville said. "I want them to show me what they do well, so I can carve out their roles based on that. I want them to keep me up at night deciding who to give what reps."