Kalen Ballage: Athletic, Frustrating and Scheme Dependent

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Kalen Ballage impressed at the NFL combine. The 6’ 1’’, 227lb Arizona State product ran a 4.46 second 40-yard dash and 6.91 second 3-cone drill, leaping 33.5” on the vertical and 122” on the broad.

That solid 6.91 3-cone (a nice 69th percentile) shows up when he is stringing cuts together and one-cutting to get north-south. Ballage is always thinking north-south.

When the run design is east-west, his upright running style makes his lateral movement appear cumbersome and incredibly stiff – like trying to three-point turn Harmony of the Seas. Or perhaps three-point turning a F-35 would be a better use of imagery, seeing as it’s a pointless exercise which misuses something which is very capable, and fast, executing a different role. Such hip rigidity can be attributed to Ballage’s high style. He needs to get them lower. Instead, when cutting upfield on a perimeter run, he will try to drop his hips at the moment of the cut, seeing him power down and lose considerable speed.

Running Laterally

Take these back to back runs against UCLA. The Sun Devils have made a promising start, going up 7-0 on their second drive of the game and then intercepting Josh Rosen on UCLA’s attempted response.

On his first series in the game (Ballage split carries throughout his college career) Ballage has run inside three times for 13 yards—his biggest gain being a 9-yard surge. But then he is asked to run outside:

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On the first run, he has little hope of succeeding with the Bruins linebackers left free to flow outside to the ball. However, just look how rigid, stiff and high Ballage looks. Note his mistimed and misplaced stiff arm.

On the second attempt, Ballage picks up a four-yard gain. However, it could have been so much more – as highlighted in the video. Instead of a big gain, he is so elevated in his running style that he struggles to make the sharp lateral cut up the seam, instead falling sideways past the line of scrimmage for a short pickup.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Running Through Contact

His upright running style – extreme even for a tall back – is frustrating in terms of his ability to run through contact as well. Too often his pads are not lowered at the end of the run and he does not impose the punishment that he could deliver, especially at his size. Too often he braces for contact instead of trying to plough through it. Additionally, there is that “Jane rather than Tarzan” vibe present. Largely because of this, and despite his size, Ballage does not consistently run through arm tackles and his high center of gravity affects his contact balance.

The first upcoming clip of a counter play is an extreme example of why it is advantageous to run behind your pads, particularly in and around the mesh point. Ballage nearly gets clotheslined. The second shows that arm tackles around the huge thighs or waste of Ballage still manage to bring the runner down, and he lets them come to him rather than bolting out of them and kicking through them.

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And here’s the frustrating thing: Ballage is flexible and can lower his pads. When he does, good things happen.

Against Colorado, on the first play of Arizona State’s second drive, Ballage runs a quick route into the flat. He adjusts to the ball being thrown over the wrong shoulder, showing remarkable body control as he high points the football while contorting his body to turn up field.

From the two-high safety spot, Buffaloes’ safety Trey Udoffia (#8) keys the play very quickly, coming downhill fast ready to meet Ballage at the line of scrimmage. Ballage arrives with bend and power, getting low at the point of contact with Udoffia and keeping his head out of the way. He makes contact firmly with his shoulder, keeping his legs driving. Despite Udoffia having most of the momentum, Ballage’s leverage and churn results in two more Colorado players having to join the tackle and Ballage picking up a two-yard gain.

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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Running Inside and Finding a Crease

With everything being so straight/linear with Ballage – even the way he chains together his cuts – his scheme fit in the NFL becomes incredibly important.

Asking him to run east-west would be similar to watching DeMarco Murray run those outside stretches in Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia offense. Painful.

Yet, asking him to run inside zone or DUO would be perfect. The way in which he is always looking to get north-south, the way in which he can one-cut, the way in which he can find a seam, the way in which he can take-off… all excellent. If he can lower his pads more at the end of runs, and punish defenders more consistently – stuff he improved in Senior Bowl practices – well then, that’s nearing perfect!

Here, back in his 97-yard game at UCLA, Ballage presses the closed gap – keeping the playside defenders, strong safety Adarius Picket (#6) and linebacker Krys Barns (#14), to the right, where they had already gone across after the fake pitch to the fly motion. Ballage sets up the huge opening and cuts into it, showing his tantalizing athleticism – and bursts through the opening for the 13-yard carry.

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Finally, watch Ballage one-cutting and exploding versus Oregon. He finds the seam that the counter creates, going for 18 yards and the first down. This is a punch in the gut for the Ducks, coming immediately after the Sun Devils recovered an onside kick to start the second half.

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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]A Scheme Dependent Success Story?

Like a lot of the Day 2 backs in this deep running back class, the way in which Ballage is deployed in the NFL will heavily affect his success in the league. If he gets drafted by a team who utilizes him incorrectly, then he will struggle – that’s true for every prospect, but especially for Ballage, who is extremely scheme dependent. On the other hand, if he finds himself in a favorable scheme, and addresses his issues, he could become the next mid-round running back success story.

This piece was inspired by work done for the 2018 Inside the Pylon Draft Guide. With over 175 full scouting reports, player interviews, historical analysis and more, be sure to purchase your copy today!

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matty’s work here, such as his breakdown of Sean McVay’s use of Todd Gurley in the pass game, plus his breakdowns of West Virginia safety Kyzir White and Missouri safety Anthony Sherrils.

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