Kalen Ballage making quick impact for ASU

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Ballage scores a touchdown against Colorado By Brad Denny Ballage scores a touchdown against Colorado By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Typically, offensive linemen clear a lane for their running backs to run through and then get out of the way.

Arizona State center Nick Kelly found on last Saturday what can happen when a lineman happens to get in a ball carrier’s path.

In the first quarter of last week’s win over Colorado, freshman running back Kalen Ballage took a short screen pass from Taylor Kelly and turned upfield. In just a few steps, the 220-pounder was at full speed, racing towards the endzone. 

“It was just instinct,” Ballage said. “I caught the ball and turned up, and I noticed the corner trying to play over the top of the two lineman I had in front of me."

Ballage saw a lane and went for it. However, Kelly just happened to be in the way.

"I went to go cut back underneath Nick, but it didn’t work out that way,” Ballage said with a laugh.

Kelly learned firsthand the type of power that the freshman from Falcon, Colo. brings to the Sun Devils. Thankfully, any potential for a grudge was washed away when Ballage crossed the goal line.

“He was happy for me, but at the same time he was ‘Man, why do you have to do me like that?’" said Ballage. "It was cool. It was good to score a touchdown in my home.”

That 38-yard catch-and-run was the latest highlight in what has been a mostly successful beginning to Ballage’s collegiate career.

Through the first three games, the former four-star recruit has already scored four touchdowns, second on the team to D.J. Foster. He has rushed 18 times for 57 yards, and his power running ability has given him regular work in short yardage and goal line situations. 

However, there have also been the expected bumps in the road that any freshman faces when adjusting to the speed of the college game.

“I was being real hesitant when it came to doing stuff, not just going and playing football like I always have,” Ballage said. “I think that I could have been more productive the first two games. But it’s all part of it. I didn’t want to ease into it too much. I feel that I have it down a little bit and will be able to go with it.”

Ballage has teamed with fellow true freshman Demario Richard (124 yards from scrimmage, one touchdown) to provide valuable depth behind Foster. Due to ASU’s need for backfield contributors to complement Foster this year, there was pressure for that duo to ramp up far quicker than most freshmen. So far, they have responded. 

“Most freshmen, they go to college thinking they will redshirt,” Ballage said. “I kind of eased into it over the first two games, while most freshmen are easing into the whole college thing at once and maybe redshirting or not doing anything at all. It feels good to get into the game and play.”

One advantage that Ballage and Richard have enjoyed is being able to learn from Foster and other veterans on the roster.

“It’s been great,” said Ballage. “Him and Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks are all older guys, and you can tell that they have done this for a while because of the little things that they do that you notice that you probably wouldn’t have done but you can pick up on it and do it next time.”

Ballage and the Sun Devils are now on a bye week, preparing for arguably the season’s most anticipated game: a battle with No. 12 UCLA. Last season, ASU clinched their first-ever Pac-12 South division championship with a win at UCLA, but the Sun Devils will have to overcome a major hurdle to top the Bruins once again.

ASU starting quarterback Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado, and will miss the UCLA game and possibly more. That snaps a streak of 30 straight starts by Kelly, and puts the Sun Devil offense in the hands of redshirt junior Mike Bercovici.

While losing their star quarterback before such a big game could prove deflating, ASU is focused on their “next man up” standard. Whether a starter or a reserve, the expectations remain the same when that player is on the field.

“That’s how we do things here. We are three-deep,” said Ballage. “You have to know what you’re doing at running back, wide receiver. Mike’s been in this system for a long time. He’s been right there with TK. He and TK have battled. He’s a really good quarterback.”

Such is the team’s faith in Bercovici that they are expecting no drop off in performance from the quarterback position on Thursday night.

“The same confidence we had in TK has shifted over to Mike,” Ballage said. “We’re going to take that and run with it. Unfortunately, TK is not able to play right now. Mike will do a great job.”

With the extra time to prepare, Ballage and the ASU offense is focusing on getting Bercovici familiarity with the starting unit, as well as ensuring their own positional tasks are executed perfectly.

“Even though Mike is a really good quarterback, he hasn’t had the same reps with us as TK has had,” Ballage said. “With the running backs, with the meshes and everything, we're just making sure that everything runs smoothly.”

ASU will need to be operating in peak form to take down the Bruins. Ballage is expecting a formidable challenge on Thursday night.

“They are just a solid team, offensively and defensively," he said. "They are probably going to bring something different than what we’ve seen. We’re just going to have to run with it.”

Run with it they shall, as the meat of ASU's schedule looms.

Thursday's crucial Pac-12 South battle is just the first of many difficult challenges ahead for the Sun Devils. A trip to USC follows the UCLA game, with Stanford and Washington coming up beyond that. With a young defense very much facing a season-long learning curve, the Sun Devil offense will need to carry the load for the program's hopes of repeating as South champions.

It will be a work in process, but one that Ballage thinks can pay off.

“We’re still not where we want to be," Ballage said. "I think there is no limit when it comes to this team and what they want to do with us.

"The more we execute, the tougher we are going to be to beat.”