ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Montee Ball was known at Wisconsin as a reliable, durable running back, not a fumbler. In 924 carries he coughed it up just twice, and one of those came when he was knocked cold. So, when he matched that total in the NFL in just 31 carries, alarm bells went off around Denver Broncos headquarters.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Montee Ball was known at Wisconsin as a reliable, durable running back, not a fumbler. In 924 carries he coughed it up just twice, and one of those came when he was knocked cold.
So, when he matched that total in the NFL in just 31 carries, alarm bells went off around Denver Broncos headquarters.
Running backs coach Eric Studesville soon found the flaw and offered a subtle solution: tucking the football into the crook of his elbow a split-second faster.
Ball hasn't put the ball on the ground since.
"So, I'm pretty sure I'm good now," said Ball, who scored his first NFL touchdown last week to go with the NCAA record 83 he collected in college.
He didn't have to worry about defenders hitting him so quickly when he was piling up yards and touchdowns for the Badgers over the last four years.
"That's exactly what Coach E. said. At Wisconsin, I had a very, very long time before I was even touched. Sometimes I wasn't even touched at all on a lot of my runs," Ball said. "Here, it's the NFL. Everyone's great. So, I've been working on just positioning the ball as soon as I get the handoff, put the ball away quick."
Ball failed to win the featured role in the Broncos backfield during training camp not because he had trouble holding onto the ball but because he whiffed on a linebacker in Seattle and Peyton Manning got squished.
As Terrell Davis, his childhood hero, told him one hot August afternoon, job No. 1 for a Broncos running back isn't to pick up the first down but the blitz.
"Most running backs can run, most running backs can catch, but blocking is the key," Davis said after giving Ball tips for a half-hour after practice that day. "If you can block, you will be in the game. You will be that guy who becomes that complete back."
Ball worked tirelessly on blocking.
"Yeah, I've been doing a great job in blitz pickup, a great job. I'm pretty sure that's not what the coaches are worried about now," he said.
He never once thought fumbles would be his issue.
Then came Week 2 of the regular season. The Broncos were going in for the score on the opening drive and Giants defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins swiped the football from Ball's grasp as he was about to cross the goal line and Ryan Mundy recovered.
Instead of a touchdown, it was a touchback.
The following week, Oakland linebacker Kevin Burnett clawed the ball free from Ball, and this fumble was especially galling because it came while the Broncos were trying to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos had picked the 215-pound bruiser in the second round of this year's draft to do just that after 180-pound Ronnie Hillman, their best option at running back, couldn't grind out the first downs they needed to close out the game against the Ravens in the playoffs.
Hillman got first crack at winning the starting running back job but he had two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns in the preseason and after Ball's blunder at Seattle, the Broncos settled on fifth-year pro Knowshon Moreno, who has nine TDs so far.
Hillman was benched last week, but while the buzz was over undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson's insertion into the rotation, it was Ball who scored Denver's only rushing touchdown against Washington.
Ball bulled his way in from 4 yards out, sparking Denver's 38-0 game-ending run that turned a two-touchdown, third-quarter deficit into yet another rout.
"I was struggling a little bit earlier. But everything's starting to fall into place now," said Ball, who sent the football to his parents just as he did a couple of keepsakes from his record-breaking TDs at Wisconsin and the football they let him keep after he tied Barry Sanders' single-season mark with 39 touchdowns in 2011.
Ball had just 57 touches over the first half of the season, not quite the start he envisioned, but he said he's ready to carry a heavier load when the Broncos return from their bye and the calendar flips to November.
"Aw, I'm as fresh as they come," he said with a laugh. "Right now I'm fully ready to take the bulk of the carries."
Ball never hung his head over his slow start but did keep his head down.
"You get a little frustrated here because at this level you either get it done or they'll find somebody else," he said. "But I make sure just to stay in the playbook and keep working and just keep my mouth shut.
"I wish I would have turned it on earlier, but better late than never."
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