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The case for Kalen Ballage as an NFL running back

Why ASU Football’s senior tailback fits the blueprint of a successful NFL running back


ASU senior running back Kalen Ballage (7) celebrates after a touchdown in a game against New Mexico State at the Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. ASU won 37-31.

With the midseason mark for the 2017 college football season now in the rear-view mirror, it is almost impossible to avoid the intensifying Heisman debates, way-too-soon NFL draft rankings and hot takes on who will be next year’s NFL rookie phenom. 

Senior tailback Kalen Ballage may not be topping anyone’s lottery-pick draft lists, but do not sleep on the bruising ASU back. He owns a skill set that will make him a valuable player in the NFL. 

GMs, draft analysts and journalists alike spend careers trying to crack the code behind what makes a college player successful in the NFL. In reality, many NFL teams have been fairly successful at drafting talented players earlier in the draft. Yet, for every boom, there are dozens of busts who never even make a roster. 

One way to approach this problem is to use statistical models to predict what skills and attributes best predict success in the NFL. 

In his published 2017 dissertation, “Predicting the Success of Running Back Prospects in the National Football League,” Kevin Merritt analyzes NFL combine data and college production to predict running back performance at the pro level. 

In Merritt’s model, a running back’s 40-yard dash time, weight, college rush yards and college receiving yards were the strongest predictors of their total NFL yards from scrimmage. 

Ballage has all of those in spades.

At 6-foot-3-inches and 230 pounds, Ballage is a bruising, vertical rusher with an incredible combination of weight and athleticism. 

He clocked in as the fastest player on the team this spring at 23.3 miles per hour. predicts Ballage’s 40-yard dash time to be as low as 4.46 seconds, a faster time than backs like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook ran at the NFL Combine. The crazy part is that Ballage is at least 20 pounds heavier and four inches taller than both of those NFL rushers.

“Not only does he have the frame and lower-body strength to run over defenders, but he has the athleticism to run around them too,” Jacob Infante, writer for the WC Gridiron and Cover 32, publications that cover the NFL, wrote via Twitter

Ballage has 1693 career rushing yards, and is likely to eclipse the 2000-mark this season. In three and a half years at ASU, Ballage has also amassed 26 touchdowns. 

While these stats pale in comparison to some of last year’s top running backs, splitting carries with senior tailback Demario Richard has handicapped Ballage’s production over the past four years.

However Ballage should hardly worry that splitting carries might torpedo his draft dreams.

“It has been proven in the past that traits can override production,” Infante said. 

Joe Mixon, Darren McFadden and Melvin Gordon are recent examples of that: highly touted running backs who saw NFL success despite splitting carries in college.

“I think that, although Ballage's stats don't necessarily stand out, his tape definitely does,” Infante said.

With the resources and coaching available to players in the NFL, Ballage would have the best means to parlay his rare combination of traits and abilities into actual production. 

Ballage has also seen success as a pass-catcher. Coming into the 2017 season, Ballage led all Pac-12 running backs in yards per route run at 2.34, although his production has dropped off some this season. 

Regardless, he has shown flashes of greatness in the passing game, a skill that bodes well for his transition to the professional level. 

Given his combination of size, speed, athleticism and dynamic playmaking ability, Ballage checks all the boxes of a successful future NFL player. 

What impresses most about Ballage is that despite his decorated and accomplished career as a Sun Devil, his best work is yet to come. He may only have a handful of games left with ASU, but football fans will be hearing his name for years to come. 

Reach the columnist at or follow @jakeuzzi on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. 

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