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Kalen Ballage already made college football history. Now he could be a steal for the Dolphins

The former Arizona State running back tied an FBS record, and compares himself to Le’Veon Bell.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kalen Ballage didn’t hear his name on the first day of the 2018 NFL Draft or the second day either. But he landed in the fourth round with the Miami Dolphins and he’s already had a day unlike any of the running backs who stepped up to shake the commissioner’s hand in the first few rounds: The former Arizona State rusher tied an FBS record by scoring eight touchdowns in a single game.

Let’s relive Ballage’s historic game and then consider how his skills might translate to the NFL.

The Game

The Sun Devils were facing the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Sept. 10, 2016. Both teams were 1-1 heading into the game. The Sun Devils were certainly capable of a high-scoring game, but few predicted they could out-do Texas Tech in that area.

With 483 yards and four touchdowns — and 69 total points — in its first game, Texas Tech had some momentum. Patrick Mahomes was quarterbacking the Red Raiders, and he was very good at it. Mahomes carried that momentum into the matchup with Arizona State, racking up five touchdowns and 540 yards. But the Red Raiders lost anyway, 68-55. So what happened?

Kalen Ballage happened.

Led by quarterback Manny Wilkins, the Sun Devils consistently moved the ball down the field using a combination of players, namely running back Demario Richard and wide receivers Nkeal Harry and Kody Kohl. But when they got into the red zone, it was Ballage’s show. The Sun Devis primarily relied on direct snap runs when they got close to the end zone, running what looked to be the same play.

No, really: the same play. Check it out.

Ballage scored seven rushing touchdowns, six of which came on direct snap runs. One touchdown was a 39-yard reception on a double-reverse flea flicker. The seventh rushing touchdown, and eighth overall, was a 75-yard run where Ballage got some great blocking, found the hole, and beat everyone to the end zone.

He showcased his speed and athleticism on that play, while most of the direct snaps saw him take his time, wait for his blocks to develop, choose his direction and then cut perfectly. He had just 15 touches, but turned them into 185 all-purpose yards.

The Aftermath

Ballage’s eight touchdowns tied the FBS record, and his 48 points tied the NCAA single game record (all divisions). The eight touchdowns equaled the mark from Howard Griffith, who did it for Illinois against Southern Illinois in 1990. It also broke the Pac-12 record for most touchdowns scored as well as most rushing touchdowns by a single player.

The running back was humble following the game, and gave most of the credit to his offensive linemen. He lined them up — all of them — for the postgame press conference.

“These guys right here,” Ballage said, “every single one of them, they go to work.”

It’s true that Ballage had some excellent blocking, but he deserves plenty of credit for picking his lanes and making defenders miss. In an on-field interview with Fox Sports following the game, Ballage took no credit.

“It wasn’t me,” Ballage said. “It was God and my offensive linemen.”

When asked about the record following the game, he said he wasn’t keeping up with it or even thinking about it during the game. He also put the team success first, a trait that is certainly desired of NFL running backs, many of whom don’t like to share the football.

“I wasn’t paying attention to that at all,” he said. “I want to win a football game. I don’t care if I score one touchdown or 20. It doesn’t matter. As long as we win, I’m fine with it.”

Ballage went on to score another six rushing touchdowns in 2016, and added six more in 2017.

The Combine

Measuring 6’1 and weighing in at 228 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, Ballage impressed right out of the gate. With a rare combination of size and speed, NFL comparisons for him are players likes Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson — who he tries to emulate.

“I think those are the two best guys playing the game right now,” Ballage said, via DraftWire. “I can get out there and run routes with the best of them. I have the ability to catch a lot of footballs. I believe that I’m capable of doing everything that entails being a great running back.”

Ballage ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, which is phenomenal for a player his size. His broad jump of 122.0 inches and three-cone drill of 6.91 seconds were also among the best for running backs. At the Senior Bowl, he impressed coaches and fans alike as well. Many believe he wasn’t well-used at Arizona State overall, and the offensive line play was generally not particularly good.

Ballage will leave some yards on the field with his upright running style and north-south focus, but those are issues that can be coached up. He’s bruising and fast at the same time. The fact that he can move that much faster than players 20 pounds lighter than him is ridiculous.

As a receiver, he runs clean routes. His hands are good, though he’s had the occasional issues with fumbles. He’s very similar to Bell in how he runs his routes and goes after passes thrown his way. And he is capable as a blocking back, always a major concern for rookies.

The Draft

With the increasing reliance on the passing game in the modern NFL, it’s never clear where the top college running backs will end up going in the draft. We seem to hear about more “generational talents” at the position than we see players who actually go in the top 10 of the first round.

Most guessed that Ballage, a big, fast runner with a ton of potential and a record to his name, would go on Day 3, in the fifth or sixth rounds, though some have suggested he could go in the fourth. That’s what happened with the Dolphins taking him with pick No. 131.

I’m not here to say that’s too low or that any teams passing on him are making a big mistake. I certainly don’t know more about him than NFL general managers and I can’t guarantee he’ll find success. But there’s a whole lot there to work with, and he has all the look of a late-round steal for the Dolphins.