ASU's Kalen Ballage on his role, expectations and that Vine

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ask any Arizona State fan who they are most excited about watching this upcoming season, and it won't be very long until you hear "Kalen Ballage".

Ever since the four-star recruit from Falcon, Colo. signed with the Sun Devils in February, fans, coaches, and media members have been keenly interested in a player that has garnered more hype than any other member of ASU's highly-rated class. It's easy to see why.

Ballage is every bit the 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds at which ASU lists him, and he combines that imposing stature and power with a sub-4.40 40-yard dash time. Not many humans can boast that blend of raw talent.  

But to reach the borderline mythical level of hype ASU fans have generated for Ballage, it takes a little more. Like a truly ridiculous Vine video.

Last fall, a video of one of Ballage's highlights was posted, in which he not only runs over a hapless defender, but launches him a good five yards downfield. 

Urban legend complete. But to Ballage, it was just another play.

"Just playing ball," he said if the play. "I've been doing it since I was a young kid, and sometimes you get a little lucky."

During his senior season at Falcon High School, Ballage rushed for 1,942 yards and 25 touchdowns while averaging over nine yards per carry. He also caught 16 passes for 360 yards (22.5 yards per reception) and six more scores. That production and his physical talent led to a host of offers, including finalists UCLA, Nebraska, Washington and his homestate Colorado. However, none could top what ASU offered.

"The coaches get after it. The players get after it," Ballage said of ASU. "Everyone is respected here. The academics are great. At the end of the day, it's about the people you are around and the atmosphere. There's no better place than here."

That last statement may be extra true for running backs, given the numbers put up in recent years by Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. Like those two prolific players, Ballage views himself as a do-it-all kind of back.

"The reason that I came here is that I like to do a lot of different things," Ballage said. "The running backs here block, they catch, they run the football. They're involved in pretty much everything. I think of myself as a diverse running back. These guys give me the opportunity and I run with it.

"At the end of the day, to be a successful running back, you have to have a little bit of everything. I'm working on polishing those skills right now."

That work includes continuing to learn the offensive scheme while also adjusting to the faster speed of Pac-12 football.

"One of my weaknesses is not fully knowing the playbook all of the time," said Ballage. "When you have to think about what you are doing, you can't play as fast as when it's there and in your mind, and you can just go, go, go."

While the learning curve for any incoming freshman is steep, Ballage has the benefit of learning from a very talented and deep group of backs.

"The experience in this backfield is amazing," Ballage said. "These are guys that I look up to already. I wish Marion (Grice) was still here so I could learn from him and learn the tricks of his trade as well. I'm happy with the guys that are here. D.J. Foster is going to do big things. Deantre Lewis, Kyle Middlebrooks and a lot of the other running backs around here, not just me. Hopefully we can all be productive and help this team win."

Ballage fits the profile of a promising running back prospect, but his athleticism also projects well to other positions. Given the team's needs on defense, especially in the pass rush, it's no surprise that his defensively-minded head coach is trying to steal him for a few reps on that side of the ball.

"Coach Graham questions me about it daily," Ballage said with a laugh. "He wants me to play a little linebacker and let me rush the passer on third down."

Ballage is willing to do whatever he can to help the team, but being in the backfield remains his first love.

"I've played running back my whole life," he said. "I just started playing linebacker two years ago. It was a fun position, but I love playing running back and all the things that come with it.

ASU opens their season on Aug. 28, and should Ballage reach his own personal expectations, it will also mark the beginning of an outstanding career in maroon-and-gold.

"I laid down goals the second I signed to this school," Ballage said. "I want to be a Freshman All-American. I want to be a Scholar-Baller (GPA 3.50 or better). There are things that I want to accomplish, and I know that it takes work, hard work, to do that."

His goals are lofty, and the fan expectations may be even higher. Yet Ballage says those pressures only serve as motivation.

"When I play this game, I don't think of myself and the pressures put on me," Ballage said. "I just want to help my team the best way that I can. It's kind of put a chip on my shoulder in the manner of I have to deliver. That's what I plan on doing."