Kalen Ballage emerging as powerful playmaker for the Sun Devils

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(AP Images) (AP Images)
Ballage scores his first career TD in the 2014 season opener against Weber State (Getty Images) Ballage scores his first career TD in the 2014 season opener against Weber State (Getty Images)
(AP Images) (AP Images)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - He took the handoff, burst through the line, and sprinted up the right sideline. When the safeties converged, it appeared the big play was at an end. However, in a move that not many players of his size could make, the 222-pounder cut back on a dime to his left, leaving defenders twisted in his wake as he broke free across the field. A defender finally caught up to him 30 yards later, but not before he wisely had switched the ball to his outside arm.

It was just one of around 140 plays Arizona State ran in their scrimmage this past Saturday, but it was a moment that displayed the big play ability and maturity of true sophomore running back Kalen Ballage.

"One of the number one things we're trying to improve offensively is our ability to run downhill and inside," said ASU head coach Todd Graham after the scrimmage. "It was encouraging to see that."

The run drew "oohs" and "ahhs" from the fans in attendance, but it was just one of many impressive highlights Ballage put forth during the session.

"Kalen was powerful today," Graham said. "He ran over the linebackers on own, drug them 10 yards. Another play, he drug them 20 yards."

The Sun Devils are halfway through the spring practice sessions, during which Ballage has continually impress. His spring performance has been such that on Saturday, he was one of 13 players wear one of the team's flame helmet, an honor that Graham says goes to "guys we can win a Pac-12 championship with."

"The recognition from the coaching staff is big, but for me, it's really the recognition from the players," said Ballage. "I do this for the players. I want to make big plays for my teammates and the people who are on the field with me on a day-to-day basis."

Despite his success this spring, Ballage is far from content with what he has shown.

"I think it's going well, but it's not going as well as I'd like it to because I'm never satisfied," Ballage said. "I always want to get better and do better and be better."

Last season as a true freshman, Ballage showing glimpses of his raw potential. He ran for 126 yards and three touchdowns and caught six passes for 64 yards and another score, but showed that there remained plenty of work to be done.

"It was not half as good as I wanted it to be," said Ballage of his 2014 season. "I had a couple of injuries on and off. That kind of put me out. It was OK. I definitely want to redeem myself this upcoming season."

That redemption includes a focus on the mental aspects of the game. 

When he first arrived in Tempe last fall, the Peyton, Colo. native was quick to wow his teammates and coaches with his athleticism and ability, but that only went so far. Now with a full season under his belt, Ballage realizes the importance of sharpening his football IQ.

"Everybody is big. Everybody is strong. Everybody is fast. It's who makes the quicker decisions," Ballage said. "At the end of the day, if you know what you are doing, if you know the direction you are going in, you can play way faster and better than your opponent."

Ballage has also found success on special teams, where his final touch of the ball last season was also his more important.

In the fourth quarter of Sun Bowl, Ballage was stopped for a loss on a critical fourth and one play. Taking over on downs, Duke drove 60 yards in 11 plays to take a 31-30 lead over the Sun Devils. With just over five minutes left in the Sun Bowl, ASU needed a spark, and Ballage was up to the task. He took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to set up the eventual game-winning touchdown. 

This spring, Ballage has continued to see action as a kickoff returner, a role he is embracing.

"Anything I can do to help my team out is exactly what I am going to do," Ballage said of return duty. "If they feel that I am the best guy in the return game, then I definitely want to do that."

But first and foremost, ASU is counting on Ballage to emerge as one of the top weapons in the arsenal of a revamped offense. 

The Sun Devils enter the 2015 season with plenty of questions to answer. ASU will have a new starting quarterback in Mike Bercovici, two new tackles bookending the line, and their top two wide receivers a year ago in Jaelen Strong (NFL) and Cam Smith (knee injury) out of the lineup. The backfield will also have a new look, as D.J. Foster, last year's leading rusher with 1,081 yards, has moved to wide receiver.

Those factors have ASU leaning on the ground game, where Ballage and fellow true sophomore Demario Richard will lead the way. Despite their youth, Ballage is confident that the duo can build upon their freshman years and become a formidable tandem.

"It's so amazing. Me and Coach Bo (Graham) always talk about how he calls us his veterans, even though we've only been here a year," Ballage said. "This is our first spring. We've really been working together back and forth and trying make sure that when the other one is one the field, we know so we can go in, stay healthy and stay fast."

To prepare for his increased role this fall, Ballage has put in plenty of work over the offseason, including focusing his work on the less glamorous—yet still critical—aspects of the position.

"My pass blocking," said Ballage. "It's not easy being a running back. You're a lineman, you're a receiver, and you have to run the ball. You have a lot of different jobs you have to take care of. It's mastering those three different things."

While both Ballage and Richard are known for their powerful running styles, another of spring's standouts is helping to add an explosive element to the backfield. De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes, a junior college transfer who redshirted last year, has impressed both coaches and teammates with his game-breaking ability.

That variety will, in time, be key in helping ASU to keep opposing defenses off balance.

"We all bring our own into this offense. He's very fast and elusive, but he's also a really smart football player. The thing for him, like me and D-Rich, he's just got to get the system down. It's not easy. He'll be able to pick up upon it very fast."

With three dynamic backs already in the fold, plus heralded four-star incoming freshman Jaason Lewis arriving this summer, what new wrinkles can fans expect to see from the ASU backfield this fall?

"You'll just have to wait and see," Ballage said with a smile.

What ASU fans ultimately hope to see is the offense light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis. Towards that goal, Ballage sees nothing standing in their way.

"As good as we want it to be. There aren't any limits to this offense. The only limit can be us. Where we takes ourselves is up to us."