ASU football wary of overusing the versatile Kalen Ballage
TEMPE — It wasn’t surprising to hear Arizona State sophomore Kalen Ballage say he expects to play on offense, defense and special teams this season.
It was, however, surprising to watch him line up solely at devilbacker during the Sun Devils’ first fall practice of 2015.
“It’s kind of boring to sit on the sideline and do one thing,” Ballage said. “Sometimes, I think people get too wrapped up in the business side of football … ‘I don’t want to get hurt,’ this, that. You got to live in the now and just play.”
But head coach Todd Graham is aware of the ramifications with such an experiment.
During spring practices, Ballage alternated from offense to defense between — and sometimes in the middle — of drills.
Now, he’ll spend an entire day on one side of the ball.
ASU still wants to use Ballage as a running back, pass-rusher and return man, but it doesn’t want to push him into injury or ineffectiveness. Graham admitted he regrets how the team handled former tight end and devilbacker De’Marieya Nelson.
“We tried to learn,” Graham said. “I think we really marginalized his play because he was having to do too much, he had a lot of nagging injuries. To evaluate that, it’s hard to have him go back and fourth.”
Ballage, who finds himself in a similar role, has yet to play in a two- or three-way role, but he did admit focusing on one side of the ball per practice makes life easier.
Only a year into learning the offense, he’s playing catch-up on defense, but was the team’s best pass-rusher in spring. He batted a ball down at the line of scrimmage during practice on Wednesday.
Whittling away at his defensive technique will catch him up as an undersized, 225-pound pass-rusher. Ballage has studied the Green Bay Packers’ Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, who were coached by first-year ASU special teams coach Shawn Slocum.
How many snaps Ballage earns and where remain to be determined, but the options are open.
“He can be one of the most dynamic running backs in the game, he can be one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the game,” Graham said. “We’re going to be very careful that we get the most out of him and don’t overuse that.”