Former Falcon star Kalen Ballage is headed, eventually, to NFL stardom, but he won’t arrive there next season. He’ll be the Dolphins third running back, a rookie sitting behind Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake.
But, trust me, he will become a special running back. The Dolphins pulled a steal in the fourth round of the draft when they selected Ballage.
Here are four reasons to believe in Ballage’s NFL future:
Former Fountain-Fort Carson coach Mitch Johnson has watched Colorado Springs-area high school football since the early 1970s. He places Ballage in the quartet of the most talented area players he’s seen, a quartet that includes Mitchell’s Terry Miller from the 1970s, Widefield’s Darryl Clack from the 1980s and Doherty’s Lamarr Houston from the 2000s.
“What a phenomenal athlete,” Johnson said Sunday, describing Ballage. “The size, the speed, the strength and his vision on the field. He’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Johnson isn’t exaggerating.
Ballage is nearly 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4. His body fat is under seven percent. He bench presses 360 pounds and squats 520. He boasts a 37-inch vertical leap.
"When he walks through the door, that’s what they’re supposed to look like," Dolphins offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains told the Miami Herald. "He’s big, he’s put together and he’s a really smart kid.”
Gore is the grand old man of NFL running backs. He turned 35 this month, and he still finds ways to defy the massive young men who inhabit NFL defenses. Gore is not blessed with Ballage’s wide array of gifts. Gore is 5-foot-9 and runs a pedestrian 4.6 40. Gore arrived in the NFL after suffering ACL tears in both of his knees.
But Gore works with unmatched intensity and consistency.
In 2016, Jamal Singleton traveled to Indianapolis to begin work as coach of the Colts running backs, a group that at the time included Gore. On his first day at work Singleton, a former Air Force star and coach, glanced out of his office window at the Colts practice field.
He saw Gore going through drills. Training camp was four months away, but Gore was working. Singleton soon discovered that Gore always was working.
"Frank Gore is unbelievable,” Singleton told me. “Just unbelievable. Nobody works like Frank Gore.”
Gore is, fortunately for Ballage, a generous soul and a devoted teammate. The ancient, gnarled master will share his secrets with Ballage.
"That’s just somebody that I look up to,” Ballage said of Gore. “A lot of people don’t see Frank as the flashy running back or anything like that, but he’s consistent every year. . . . I think that’s definitely somebody that I can learn from."
Ballage did not expect to wait until the fourth round to be drafted after delivering a dazzling performance at the NFL Draft Combine.
When Ballage talked with reporters in Miami last week, he brought up the draft snub without being asked. Clearly, he’s hungry to show something to the doubters on every other NFL team.
“There were 130 people picked before me and 11 other running backs," Ballage said. ". . . It’s just something that motivates me."
Hunger is powerful stuff. Hunger can inspire Ballage to arrive at the heights of his considerable promise.
His (relative) freshness
Ron Dayne, who won the 1999 Heisman Trophy at Wisconsin, never quite delivered on all of his promise as an NFL running back. He was good, but never great. Dayne boasted, like Ballage, size and speed.
Here’s my theory for Dayne’s NFL troubles:
He arrived in the pro game already drained by his years in the college game. Dayne carried the ball 1,220 times for Wisconsin before he ever carried the ball in the NFL. (Dayne had 983 NFL carries.)
Ballage is the veteran of only 450 carries in four seasons at Arizona State. Dayne’s body was overtaxed in college. Ballage was undertaxed, but that's good news as he embarks on his NFL career.
The Sun Devils never fully figured out how to utilize Ballage, who enjoyed moments of brilliance, including eight touchdowns (on only 15 touches) in a 68-55 win over Texas Tech but never quite soared to full potential.
"I feel like I’m definitely somebody that needs to grow as a player in general. I feel like everybody needs to grow at some point," Ballage said. "Tom Brady probably has a bunch of things that he needs to work on and get better at.”
He will get his chance to fully soar with the Dolphins. I believe he eventually will soar all the way to stardom.