Wisconsin running back Montee Ball was a Heisman hopeful last year and Heisman favorite this year. Unfortunately, he was attacked by five other people (Adam Rittenberg, ESPN) in an unprovoked assault earlier this month, which could slow him early in the season.
As we have learned in the past, Heisman candidacy doesn't always equal big-time pro prospects. Does Ball pass the eyeball test to fit in as a starting pro running back, or is this another case of the right back in the right system who won't translate as well to the NFL?
Ball is listed at 5'11", 212 pounds with a 40 time anywhere from the mid-4.4s to the mid-4.6s. He is not a "special" back in any way physically. His initial burst and second gear are not elite, although he doesn't slow down once he reaches top speed, and he maintains his top speed from the first quarter to the fourth quarter.
Ball's lateral agility is slightly above average at best. He doesn't make sharp cuts behind the line of scrimmage and sometimes has to gather himself to change direction. His balance and footwork is good, but not exceptional. Where he does shine in the quickness/elusiveness vein is in the open field.
Ball naturally sets up tacklers in a one-on-one situation such as this one. He has just stuck his foot in the ground to burst out of this cut:
Ball is not particularly sudden or explosive, but he can leave a would-be tackler grasping at air when he catches them flat-footed:
Ball is "only" 5'11", 212, and I say this because he plays smaller than that. Ball does churn his legs upon contact and can win some collisions with superior energy, but for the most part, he doesn't look like lead-NFL-back material in the power aspects of his game.
Ball tends to get swallowed up by defensive linemen when he meets them in the backfield, he rarely drags tacklers or pushes them backwards, and when he does, it is a case of will, not one of an outstanding power back.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in short yardage, where Ball will be a liability at the next level. On this play, he is facing a defensive back one-on-one in the open field at the first-down marker...and he loses:
Vision is the most underrated trait in a running back. To see holes and be able to adjust and hit them at top speed is a crucial part of the adjustment to the much higher level of the pro game. Unfortunately, this scene is way too common when watching Ball:
Ball's lack of vision is exacerbated when he picks the wrong hole. Here, the efficient move is to run between the blockers and get upfield as quickly as possible:
Ball—possibly thinking that he is faster than he really is—stretches the play to the outside and gives the tackler the easy angle, resulting in only a short gain:
Ball should be able to contribute in the passing game for two reasons. First, he is a quality blocker. He can cut-block larger rushers, but that is not the only weapon he has protecting his quarterback. He engages the blitzer, takes good angles and generally stops their momentum upon contact:
Ball is also an accomplished receiver with good hands and great ball skills. On this play, the defender thinks he has an interception, but Ball adjusts to make the catch behind his body and eventually scores a touchdown on the play:
This difficult-to-measure quality is where Ball shines. He will initiate contact as a blocker or runner. He does not back down from defenders or shy away from a collision. While he isn't an overwhelmingly powerful back, he does wear down a defense with superior conditioning and effort.
Ball doesn't lose energy as the game goes on—if anything, he gets stronger. In this commanding four-touchdown performance against Nebraska last year, three different tacklers have a shot at Ball short of the stripe:
Ball breaks free of all of them and scores a back-breaking touchdown:
There's a lot to like about Ball's game, but it's clear why he came back to school after getting only a mid-second-to-early-third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He's not a bell-cow back and maybe not even a lead back in the NFL. He'll be a great committee back, and if he can demonstrate more functional strength and suddenness in his cuts this year, he could get into the Top 50 picks.
It is much more likely that he'll go exactly where the advisory board told him he would—right around the same point as complementary backs like LaMichael James, Isaiah Pead and Ronnie Hillman did this year.