Jared Cooper

Coop’s Corner: Averting Danger

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Coming off a season as one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, Arizona State added a young man who, whenever he steps on the field, it is similar to entering, the danger zone.

ASU freshman Kalen Ballage is not your typical running back; standing at 6-feet-3-inches tall and weighing 220 pounds, he is a man of great size and speed. He was recruited from Falcon High School in Peyton, Colorado where he was a two-sport athlete, playing football and running track.

One of the unique traits about Ballage is his speed for his size. While in high school, Ballage ran the 100-meter dash, with his fastest time clocking in at 10.47 seconds. While his speed was uncanny, running track was not what he enjoyed. “To be honest, I really didn’t like track. I’m not a track guy. I just did it because I knew it would help me out with football,” said Ballage.

On the football field is where Ballage most excelled in high school. Throughout his high school career, Ballage totaled nearly four-thousand all-purpose yards and thirty-five touchdowns. Playing every position other than the offensive line in high school, he is one of the most versatile players on the Sun Devil roster. While running back is Ballage’s favorite position, he does miss playing others occasionally. “I miss playing linebacker a little bit,” stated Ballage. “It the ability to be more free. On offense you are kind of directed toward one specific thing you are supposed to be doing. But on defense, you can roam around and play ball.”

When making his decision to come to ASU, Ballage had a little conflict with mother nature. His decision was delayed several days, which he says he really did not want since it gave him more time to think about his decision. Ballage credits DJ Foster and the rest of the running back group as to one of the many reasons why he came to ASU because it gives him an opportunity to sit on the sidelines and learn from them.

The leader of this dynamic group of running backs is none other than Bo Graham. Entering his second year as the running backs coach, Graham has had a total of eight years coaching. Graham recruited Ballage out of high school and says that he has adjusted well so far to the college football level. “He got here early in the summer and immediately started spending time out on the field on his own with Taylor (Kelly) and (Mike) Bercovici, getting timing down and learning the offense from our veteran players.” Coach Graham went on to say that he’s “always in the media room studying. Always doing what you are asking him to do…I think physically he put himself in a great position in high school. Coming in he was a guy who was in shape…and you see him kind of reaping the benefits of that.”

Ballage has been seeing lots of play time as a freshman in his first season. Through four games, he has accumulated almost two-hundred all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns. Ballage is a dynamic piece to this offense says Coach Graham. “He’s a great mixture of size and speed. He brings a different running style to the group. He’s a hard guy to tackle, very explosive and quick out in space.” Although Coach Graham isn’t a baseball coach, he did not hold back from using a baseball reference. “He’s kind of a curveball; a little bit different from the other guys.”

Compared to the rest of the running backs on the ASU roster, Ballage stands the tallest but he does not let that get in the way; he let’s his legs to the talking. As one of the fastest players on the team, Ballage adds an interesting component to this already potent offense. “Usually a bigger guy like that doesn’t move the way he moves,” said Coach Graham. “It’s a dangerous combination of size and speed.”

In Week 3, Arizona State played at Colorado. During the first quarter, Ballage received a screen pass from quarterback Taylor Kelly, which led to Ballage’s first collegiate receiving touchdown. On his run to the end zone, he ran over junior center Nick Kelly, which Ballage says dealt with the adrenaline from being back in his home state for the first time since he left for school and playing in front of family and friends. “I honestly didn’t even realize I did until I saw the film later on. We laughed and joked about it. I got him donuts and stuff so I think I made up for it,” said Ballage.

The Sun Devils went on to beat Colorado, but in the end, taking the hit was worth it said Nick Kelly. “All of a sudden, I just felt Kalen come up and crack me. I had no idea I was on one leg and then I was just upside down in the air and hit the ground, but I popped right back up. I was just happy that we scored the touchdown,” stated Kelly.

Last week, ASU had a disappointing loss to Pac-12 South rival, the UCLA Bruins. There were many mistakes made on either side of the ball but with another game completed on the schedule, the Sun Devils and Ballage learned something that they will take with them for the rest of the season. “Adversity strikes hard and it strikes when you least expect it.” Ballage went on to say that “when you get knocked down, you just got to get back up and keep playing.”

While Ballage has only been at ASU for several months, he has made a large impact, not only on the team, but the coaching staff. He still has much to learn and improve upon said Coach Graham. “Catching the football at all angles. We ask him to run every route in the book. Working on hand-eye coordination and being 100 percent on the catch. And then the dirty work in the box. Pass protection, how he sets, who he’s looking at and being able to make a decision quickly.”

Aside from being one of the most dynamic players on the team, Head Coach Todd Graham gave Ballage a special number to wear as a Sun Devil. Ballage wears number nine which represents Charles Clay, who starred for Todd Graham’s while coaching at Tulsa University. Ballage stated, “I’ve never met Charles Clay but I would absolutely love to. He was a good running back and a great football player.”

What may be an even more unique situation is the relationship between Bo Graham and Todd Graham. In addition to being to being a member of Todd Graham’s staff, Bo is also his son. Working for your dad can be a challenging task but Bo Graham says that his dad makes him a better coach by putting a little more of added pressure on him. “I’d like to think that he’s harder on me than anyone else because I’ve been around hime for so long and the expectations are so high. So I invite those high expectations and I think it’s good for me,” said Bo Graham.

Not only is there a work relationship, but Graham says that there’s still an added emotional part when working with his dad. “There’s a little more meaning watching him run out of the tunnel…I’ve been with him everywhere he’s ever been. It’s been a long road but I love the situation,” stated Bo Graham.

The Sun Devils have another hard test this week, going up against another Pac-12 South foe, the USC Trojans. In last year’s meeting, ASU’s offense was too much for USC as they won 62 to 41. After making mistakes on the offensive side last week, the Sun Devils look to fix their errors in hopes of conquering the Trojans on their home turf. Nick Kelly said, “We need to get more in tune on our technique and making sure that we are making the correct blocks. We also need to cut off the right people at the right time in order to make those holes for the backs.”

The Trojans are currently ranked number sixteen in the nation, with the defense being the only one in the FBS to not allow a passing touchdown. USC is always a tough challenge but playing on the road at the Coliseum is not always an easy task. Although Kelly has never played at USC, it is still something that is talked about amongst the players. “I hear good stories from there. I hear it’s loud and a great experience to have but I have no worries, no fears about playing in the Coliseum,” stated Kelly.

Now only four games into the 2014 season, ASU has not only learned a lot but is now in a position to turn things around and face the adversity, hopefully putting other teams in the danger zone.

About Jared Cooper

Jared Cooper

Jared is an Intern this season for ASU Devils Den. He is a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications studying Broadcast Journalism with a focus in sports broadcasting. In addition to interning at ASU Devils Den, he works in the Marketing Department for the Phoenix Suns. Jared is a former Sparky the Sun Devil, ASU's mascot, from 2011 to 2013.

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