INDIANAPOLIS – When
His collegiate footsteps ended on one at Mississippi State, where he had two very productive seasons.
Ballard set foot on the NFL stage last year and experienced the same results, leading the Colts in rushing with 814 yards on 211 carries, while having 17 receptions and scoring three touchdowns overall.
Ballard was proving himself in a new league while finding out how far his talents could take him. Those talented helped a young Colts offense be a force in an 11-5 season.
Colts coaches were not among those who needed to learn about his talents. Early on Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians cited Ballard’s ability to “tote” the football.
After subbing the first four games, the fifth-round pick started in week five. Remaining healthy, he never exited the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
“I’d say I just got a better feel for the game,” said Ballard. “Coming from college, I didn’t know what to expect. Early on, I really wasn’t playing much. Once I really got to playing and had a feel for the season, just the attention to details, I think I got pretty comfortable with it.”
In his second start, Ballard rushed 20 times against Cleveland. It was the first time since week two of the 2010 season a Colts back had topped the 20-carry mark in a game.
Indianapolis professed a wish to run more in 2012 than it had in previous seasons. Ballard cracked the 20-carry barrier twice more during the season and came within three attempts of hitting 30 in the victory over Houston in the finale.
Ballard needed no validation on the outside, but he liked the feeling inside.
“I really do it for myself,” said Ballard. “You see people talk about your peers a lot. Whenever they’re not talking about you, in reality you feel you can do just as good. For that simple fact, I think that kind of motivates me. Even if I’m doing good, I still want to prove that I’m as good as others they talk about all the time.”
Pagano saw a number of young players flourish last year and likes the juice Ballard provides.
“He’s tough, hard-nosed. Watching his tape, we found out the more reps and carries he had, the more he got into the flow of the game. As the games went along, as he got into the 15-to-18-carry (level), he keeps getting better,” said Pagano. “We saw him close out a bunch of games for us last year. He got us on a knee in a couple of games with some great runs, third-down runs, whatever.
“He’s all business. He comes in every day and does a great job. He picks up things and practices really hard. We always say, ‘You play like you practice.’ The production he had in his first year and how he played, he doesn’t go backward (with the ball). Unless someone comes free on a stunt and he gets hit, or something gets blown up in the backfield, he’s going to make positive yards. I’m really looking forward to seeing in progress in year two. He’ll make something out of anything.”
Ballard averaged just a shade below four yards per carry last year. He ended the season with 11 straight games with a rush exceeding 10 yards. His rushing yards ranked fourth among NFL rookie backs, and he had 22 carries for 91 yards (4.1 average) in the playoff outing at Baltimore.
Ballard had a 105-yard outing at Houston late in the year. It was that game and the playoff battle he cites as his most memorable games, and for different reasons.
“The first Houston game and the Baltimore game stand out. The Houston game I was able to make some plays and it was the first time eclipsing 100 yards,” said Ballard. “In the Ravens game, I had 10 blocking assignments when they blitzed. I made every one of them, and that was a good feeling.
“It’s (important to measure yourself beyond rushing the ball) because you’re only going to get the ball so many times. If you play 60 plays, you may get the ball 20 times. The other 40 plays, you still have something to do. That’s a big part of being a pro. You have to be sharp on details. The smaller things make the big things happen. When you’re on top of the details, you’re doing your job and good things can happen.”
Ballard will be in a new attack in 2013, but he will use his old approach. Wanting to prove things to himself again, there are areas on which he will focus.
“I will work on small things like reading defenses better, identifying things quicker so when I come up to the line I can anticipate what a defense is doing,” said Ballard. “I got a little better at it. I stayed with it, but I still struggled with it at the end of the season.
“The game did slow down as I played. It helped a lot to know the playbook so you didn’t have to think so much when you were out there. This year, we have a new offensive coordinator so we’re going back into a new system. In terms of knowing what to expect from this level, it will help me out a lot.”