Football that is played in June doesn’t typically register very high on most fans' radars, as that time of year is when rookies and new players get acclimated to a team’s playbook.
The emphasis is on learning more so than the actual execution, although this season, head coach Adam Gase has made it clear that learning, understanding and executing the plays are a crucial trifecta that all players are expected to master this season. Gase has been critical on several occasions of players not knowing the playbook and/or not being prepared on gameday. Thus the first day of rookie Offseason Training Activities (OTAs) this season was spent in the classroom.
Once on the field, coaches are paying attention to which players are getting it done.
“This rookie class has done a good job of trying to catch up as fast as they can and just really use their speed and what they know to their advantage,” says Gase.
And he singled out two players that are doing well: linebacker Jerome Baker and running back Kalen Ballage.
“I think you can see both of those guys, the longer we've gone, the less mistakes they make and the faster they're able to play,” said Gase. “When you're fast and strong and just have football instincts, you can let those take over. At least if you screw up, you're going 100 miles per hour.”
As for Ballage, Gase was effusive.
“He's progressing quickly." he said. "It's a lot on your plate as a rookie running back, especially when the defense starts to get into some of their exotic stuff on third down and you're still trying to figure out some of the basic things that you're doing in the offense. He's working hard. He's consistently been one of those guys that's always trying to find a way to get extra time with other players. I know (Kenyan) Drake has spent a lot of time with him just trying to really nail down the offense and then adjust to the defense when they're doing certain things.
“We've been just trying to do as many things as possible in the spring to get him used to things because once you hit training camp, you don't have a ton of time to spend on one specific thing. A lot of things are going to be flying at him once we hit training camp, so the more that he knows now, the more reps he gets and the more defenses he sees – the adjustments – then the better it's going to be for him down the road."
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains loves his new running back’s prototypical size and speed, saying, “When he walks through the door, you draw them up like that. He's big, he's good in protection, can catch the ball, can be a matchup issue in the passing game. You want guys that can play on all three downs. I think Kalen fits that vision. He can catch the football. He can be a weapon out of the backfield; but he's also big enough in pass pro.
“Where he needs to grow is the NFL game and nickel protections and learning that stuff, because that's obviously the biggest transition in the NFL - going in there and you've got odd defenses and you've got spinners and floaters and trap blitzes and all of those things. He's got to master that stuff. The more exposure that he gets, the better he's going to get at it.”
Spinners and floaters and trap blitzes?
“All of that stuff, yes it sounds confusing. Says Ballage. “It was kind of confusing to me in college when I first heard that stuff, and now I'm getting more detailed about it in the NFL. There's tricks to the trade. Everything on defense, every blitz that they have coming, we have something to counteract that.”
Although running back Frank Gore is a 14-year veteran in the NFL, he’s new to the Dolphins playbook. Paired with second-year back Kenyan Drake, the running back room is young, and the three running backs have helped each other figure out the intricacies of the offense. And the speed of the NFL game, something many rookies struggle with, is certainly keeping Ballage on his toes.
“I think practice one day we just started going super fast,” he relates. “I'm from a no-huddle offense at Arizona State, I've been in the no-huddle stuff and going really fast. But going really fast and not knowing all of the plays is completely different. There were a few times where my mind is running 100 miles per hour trying to figure things out.”
Ballage models his game after Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, two players he’s studied and who both have a similar body type to Ballage. But more so than just that, Ballage sees what those two have done in the NFL and wants to pattern his career in the same mold.
“They've lived up to the hype, so that's where I'm trying to get next,” he says. “I don't have one specific mentality in anything that I do. I try to do everything. I want to score every time I touch the ball. That's kind of how I am … when I catch the ball, I want to make a difference in the passing game.”
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter: @EJFootball
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