Wisconsin has earned the moniker “Lineman U” during the decade for its excellence at the position. One of the unintended consequences with this unit’s excellence is the parade of productive college running backs that underwhelm in the NFL. Ron Dayne, Brian Calhoun, Anthony Davis, P.J. Hill, and John Clay are all examples of players that earned some degree of acclaim in college, but were exposed as average NFL athletes, at best.
Although I can’t confirm the characterization, it was once relayed to me second hand that a former rookie of the year defender in the NFL characterized Ron Dayne as “soft,” at the height of the Dayne craze. As he intimated, the Badgers line play produces holes wide enough to mask a back’s weaknesses. As long as the runner had college-level burst, patience, and good feet, great yards after contact skill and strong agility behind a line of this caliber isn’t as necessary.
So when Montee Ball took his turn behind the wheel of the Wisconsin offensive line it seemed likely that he’d be another runner in a long line of good college backs without much of an NFL future. However, I’ve watched enough of Ball to believe he’s the best pro prospect at the running back position that Wisconsin has had in at least a decade. What Ball brings to the table that I think separates him from his fellow alums is something that is sometimes a challenge to see because of the strength of the Badgers offensive line.
A good example of Ball’s vision is a 2nd and 10 play with 8:36 left in the game. Ball is the single back in a 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) set with both receivers split left. The center and right guard are going to double-team the right defensive tackle to seal the inside and the right tackle seals the outside.When watching the run for the first time, it appears that Ball simply runs in a straight line for a 21-yard gain. However, this is where context can actually help discern there’s more to Ball’s method than meets the eye.
On just the play before, Ball saw the Michigan St. linebacker fill the crease to the outside shoulder of the guard’s side of the double team. On this play, Ball recognizes the same reaction and slightly alters his steps to veer to the inside of the center’s side of the double team, which results in a 21-yard gain because the linebacker has now overrun his angle.
Ball runs through the grasp of the backside linebacker at the line of scrimmage as the defender is coming off a block and bursts up the flat untouched for 10 yards, feinting outside with his shoulder towards the safety in the flat to dip a bit more inside 13 yards downfield. This juke forces the safety to break down too early and fall at the feet of Ball as the runner passes by. Ball gains another nine before the safety coming from the left side of the field delivers a hit and knocks Ball to the ground nine yards later.
As vanilla of a run as this looks, it’s actually good decision making and conceptually understanding what his opponents were doing on the play before. Ball made these types of decisions throughout the game.
He gained back-to-back first downs beginning on 1st and 10 with 4:28 in the game during a game-tying drive where he manipulated the linebackers with his decisions.
Ball got the ball from a 12 personnel set with both receivers split left and ran the same play where I just showed him earning 21 yards from the prior series. However this time Ball pressed towards the doubleteam to the right side, spotted the linebacker getting inside the left guard’s block just past the line of scrimmage and veered to the left guard’s outside shoulder. He then made a second strong cut away from corner coming to the left hash and this got him free to the left flat three yards down field.
To get there, Ball strung two moves together within about three steps and it took him from right guard to left tackle in short order. What you also like to see is that Ball got his shoulders downhill and finished the run by lowering his pads into the oncoming safety for a gain of 11.
On the next play, this same play went for 13 yards and this time Ball pressed the double team towards the center’s left shoulder and then bent the run to the right guard’s right shoulder through the hole. This press set up both linebackers, the same players that just got victimized the play before by Ball’s cutback. This press and bend gave Ball a nice crease in right flat and he was able to accelerate just past the grasp of a corner seven yards down field for another six on the play before he was thrown to the ground.
After watching Ball in a number of games this year I’m beginning to wonder if the offensive line’s typically strong performance is hiding how talented this running back actually is. The more I watch Ball, the more I see a mature runner with good movement and a more punishing, powerful style than I’ve seen from Wisconsin runners of yesteryear. Even more curious is that Ball lost 28 pounds heading into his junior year and he’s a very Terrell Davis-like 5-11, 210 pounds as opposed to one of these fullback-sized runners with scat back feet and scat back power (Davis and Calhoun excluded, who were scat backs in dimension).
I have more to study of Montee Ball’s game, but I believe he has what it takes to contribute at the NFL level. He generally makes receptions with his hands and he’s a consistent part of the Wisconsin passing game. However, he does fight the ball at time. Even on easier catches, I see him making slight shifts of the ball – almost double-catching the pass – and he has had some drops of easy passes.
Ball also needs significant work in pass protection. He consistently misses angles on assignments because he doesn’t appear to move his feet well. This happens when he’s engaged with a defender or tracking the movement of his assignment so he can square his body. I have seen enough positive moments to believe Ball can become a sound pass protector with additional work, but these plays are rare compared to the ones where he missed blocks and put his quarterback in trouble.
As a runner, Ball lacks a good third gear and he is caught from behind on longer runs. ESPN/ABC commentator Brent Musberger’s characterization of Ball as “the hammer,” is also overstated. Ball has good balance and he will run through arm tackles, but he is not a great pile mover. In the NFL, I think Ball’s skills may translate more to those of Chester Taylor in his prime than a long-term feature back and this is only if Ball becomes a better player in the passing game and third down.
Even if Ball is merely a committee back or a first-off-the-bench reserve in the NFL, it’s better than the fate of most Wisconsin runners.