KLEE: Broncos have a Ball - and look for Montee to move on up

By: Paul Klee sports@gazette.com
June 3, 2013 Updated: June 3, 2013 at 7:40 pm
photo - Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, hands the ball off to running back Montee Ball during NFL football team's training facility in Englewood, Colo., on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, hands the ball off to running back Montee Ball during NFL football team's training facility in Englewood, Colo., on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) 

ENGLEWOOD - My question for Barry Alvarez, the visionary athletic director at Wisconsin, was a simple one.

What was it about Montee Ball that allowed him to become the face of a Big Ten football program?

"It's easy to say he's the face of the program for the last couple years when he was making a run for the NCAA rushing touchdown record (77 in Ball's career)," Alvarez told me Monday in a phone conversation. "But if you go back before that, he was our third tailback."

Hmmm. Now there is an interesting anecdote from Badger Land.

How does it translate in Broncos Land? Denver took Ball in the second round of the NFL draft.

"He's a kid - instead of sticking out his lip and pouting - who stays with it until he gets a shot," Alvarez said. "When he gets his opportunities, he jumps on it."

His opportunities with the Broncos are coming soon.

Sooner, rather than later.

Watching Monday's Organized Team Activities at Dove Valley, I saw a practice field stacked with enough talent to reach the playoffs - even if Peyton Manning wasn't the quarterback.

The Broncos haven't been this deep since they won Super Bowls in 1997 and '98.

The biggest question Monday - at least that I could see - was at running back. Willis McGahee isn't there for OTAs. He's in Miami and coming off knee surgery. Knowshon Moreno was on the practice field for the first time this spring. Moreno, too, had knee surgery.

Ronnie Hillman was there and still slight in stature. Jacob Hester was there.

Ball was there. He was the best one there and figures to get better once he learns what it is that Manning is barking about at the line of scrimmage.

"He's a rookie, but coach (John) Fox is not going to bring him along slowly," Manning said of Ball. "We are going to put him in there and make him a contributor this year."

Sooner, rather than later.

As a sophomore at Wisconsin, Ball's time arrived sooner than expected. Alvarez recalled a game at Iowa when the two running backs slotted ahead of Ball - John Clay and James White - both were dealing with injuries.

Strange, right? McGahee and Moreno - two running backs who might be slotted ahead of Ball - are dealing with injuries.

"Montee really hadn't played much to that point. He comes in and lights it up," Alvarez said. "He made some fourth-down catches. He finished some runs to get us first downs. He scores the winning touchdown."

Ball is sharp. He is well-spoken and unafraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger. The Missouri native was born in the '90s - feel old yet? - but comes across as older than his years.

Ball turns 23 in Week 14, when the Broncos host the Titans.

"He was one of our leaders in community-service hours," Alvarez said. "He was right in the middle of taking on special projects in the community, whether it was helping out an individual with physical defects or going to the Children's Hospital every Friday."

Lending a hand in the community doesn't make a good football player; it is merely a sign the guy understands there is more to being a pro than performing on Sundays.

Ball gets it. Playing alongside Manning, the perfectionist, Ball understands preparation is a prerequisite, not an option.

"At first, I was star-struck," Ball said when I asked about Manning. "I'm not going to lie."

Several times during these spring workouts - his first as a professional - Ball has stayed after practice to find extra work with Manning. Ball asks questions, constantly.

"What he (Manning) told me is that if you don't (ask questions), we expect you to know it. So for me, I'm just firing off a ton of questions right now."

This was the end result Monday: "The jitters are gone and now I'm ready to play," Ball said. "I feel like I sort of showcased that in practice. I knew all of my assignments. I didn't look like I was a chicken with his head cut off in the backfield."

As I relayed this information to Alvarez, none of it came as a surprise to the former Badgers coach, who built the powerhouse at Wisconsin on blue-collar athletes like Ball.

"He's the real deal," Alvarez said.

Sooner, rather than later.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette. Paul Klee is hosting a live chat Tuesday from noon-1 p.m. on gazette.com

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