DENVER - Montee Ball was happily signing autographs on a sunny afternoon at Mile High. He shook hands with fans, smiled for photos and patted the head of the occasional baby.

Why all the happiness?

You would be happy, too, if your job description included taking handoffs from Peyton Manning, one of football history's top five quarterbacks.

Sure, there's pressure. Last season Ball resided in the background, free from the burden of expectations. The rookie served as Knowshon Moreno's relief pitcher, offering brief, often tantalizing cameo appearances before returning to the safety of the sideline.

Sunday afternoons soon will be vastly different. The glare is now fully on Ball.

"What's football without a little pressure?" Ball asked, laughing.

His smile faded as he talked about the challenges ahead. He needs to develop into a better pass blocker. He needs to prove his 2013 early-season fumbling troubles were a fluke. And he needs to show the Broncos were correct in doing nothing at running back after Moreno departed for Miami.

This doing nothing was a massive vote of confidence in Ball.

"Oh, I most definitely feel pressure, but it's great," Ball said. "It's good pressure. It's going to make me a better person and a better man and a better player for this team."

I have little doubt Ball will find wide open spaces when he bursts out of the backfield. Those open spaces are the result of playing alongside Manning, who will tenderize defenses with his brain and passing arm.

I do wonder about Ball protecting Manning on pass plays.

Ball played in college for the Wisconsin Badgers, who passed the ball roughly as often as the Air Force Academy. In other words, almost never.

"When I was there at Wisconsin, we most definitely worked on it," Ball said of pass protection. "But we threw the ball like seven times a game on average, seriously."

Ball should be the Broncos' bust-out star this season, jumping from his role as Moreno's sidekick to the Broncos featured back. He's a cinch to gain 1,000 yards, maybe as early as the 12th game of the season.

He's blessed. Ball faces only the lightest of competition for the starting job with competition from the gifted but disgraced-by-fumbles Ronnie Hillman and the average-on-his-best-day C.J. Anderson.

I saw hints last season of Ball being ready to seize the job as the Broncos' featured back, but these only were hints. It's obvious coach John Fox and Broncos guru John Elway saw much more than mere hints. They are true believers.

So is tight end Julius Thomas.

"I think one thing that maybe is underestimated about Montee is his ability to run after that first contact," Thomas said. "I know that's something that he prides himself on, and that's something we're going to push him to continue to do."

At first glance, Ball is not imposing. He stands 5-foot-10 (maybe) and lacks sprinter speed.

But he's relentless. At Wisconsin, he towered as the Manning of the Badgers' offense, the first, second and third option. He collected 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns, and those weren't his career stats. That's how much damage he delivered to defenses in his final two seasons.

He's not blessed with tremendous size or dazzling speed, but Emmitt Smith wasn't either. This is not to say Ball is the second coming of Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

But Smith never played alongside Manning.

No wonder Ball is so happy.


Twitter: @davidlukeramsey