Ballard learns to keep balance

Navy fullback stays on stride despite changes, criticism

College Football


San Diego -- "Stride" is becoming the definitive word in Adam Ballard's vocabulary.

As in "take it all in stride," when Navy coach Paul Johnson screams at him on the sideline as he did for a national audience and a capacity Notre Dame Stadium crowd to see on the JumboTron scoreboard.

Or, as in "find your stride," a transition Ballard was forced to make after switching from a high school career played primarily at tailback to a starter at fullback as a sophomore in NCAA Division I-A football.

Forced to the forefront at Notre Dame by a season-ending injury to Matt Hall, Ballard has certainly taken a huge stride forward, rushing for 360 yards and three touchdowns in the final two regular-season games. He twice broke the Navy single-game highs for the season and smashed quarterback Chris McCoy's record for ground yardage in his first two starts.

Those kinds of numbers were previously reserved for the likes of McCoy and Kyle Eckel, the standout fullback who received a training camp look this year from the NFL champion New England Patriots despite his military commitment.

So, Ballard figures to be a central figure Thursday night when the Midshipmen make a school-record third straight postseason appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl against Colorado State. Game time at Qualcomm Stadium, the home of the San Diego Chargers, is 10:30 p.m. EST. It will be shown nationally on ESPN2.

Ballard realizes Johnson's outbursts are for the player's own good.

"I just listen to what he says," Ballard said. "He's run this offense successfully for I don't know how long and you have to learn to take it from him. I heed what he says, not how he says it, and try not to get too emotional about it. We're winning and going to bowl games, so you won't hear me say anything."

"That [the attitude] is why I think the military won't be too bad for him," Ballard's mother, K.C., said by phone from Lewisville, Texas. "When he was young and he'd do something that needed punishing, he reacted the same way. If I told him no TV or that he was grounded for a couple of days and wasn't going anywhere, he'd shrug and say `OK, what's two days?'"

Johnson is far more prone to direct his ire at frontline players than substitutes or scout-team members. Those he expects high performance from are often primary targets and Ballard has received criticism for shabby blocking, taking the wrong route or standing too tall while carrying the ball.

"Adam has ability and that's why I get after him a lot," Johnson said. "I tend to get after guys that have more ability than some others. "When I see Adam get arm-tackled, I get excited because he's a big, physical guy and nobody should tackle him with an arm. He should be a physical blocker.

"He's making progress. At times, he still doesn't get as low as I would like him to, but on a touchdown run against Notre Dame he ran through an arm tackle and got by the safety. He could be really good."

Ballard is nearly 6 feet 2 and is listed at 240 pounds, although he said, "I have lost some weight" recently without specifying how much. Despite looking up at the Jumbotron to see if anyone was catching him during a 67-yard touchdown run against Army, he has decent speed for a fullback.

At Marcus High School, recruiters were swarming to him until he shifted from tailback to receiver and linebacker as a senior and didn't have glittering statistics to showcase. "Everybody kind of stopped calling," said Ballard.

Navy assistant Todd Spencer kept after him.

"The first time I met him was in the cafeteria during his junior year," Spencer said. "At that time, I thought he might not be highly recruited and then they moved him and he didn't touch the ball as often as he thought he would. I knew he had good speed; he was a 10.8 100-meter guy. He had another Division I opportunity, but we kept working hard and persevered."

"After his visit to the academy, he had made up his mind," said his mother. "He loves football and no other college could offer him what Navy could. We didn't push him, just supported him."

As a plebe, Ballard played primarily on special teams. He entered the spring with a chance to overtake Hall after several other fullback candidates quit the squad. But he was slowed by shoulder and hamstring injuries and had much more to learn about the position. Ironically, Hall was just hitting his stride when he tore up a knee on his first carry at Notre Dame.

Fullbacks coach Chris Culton said Ballard "had to change the way he runs. A fullback lines up closer to the ball than a tailback and his stride was long. If you take a bad first step, there is no coming back and he had to shorten up. He wasn't giving himself a chance to make the cut. You have to trust what you see and he didn't completely believe what he was seeing."

With his pads too high, Ballard wasn't getting the proper leverage. "He was being hesitant," Culton said. "When he gets low, he's a tough old boy. He just needs to refine his whole game."

"Coming out of a three-point stance, I wanted to pop right up," Ballard said. "In a way, everything completely changed for me. But now I've been thrust into starting, so I'm the man. If I mess up, it's on me."

He is messing up a lot less lately. Ballard is hitting his stride.

Poinsettia Bowl

Navy vs. Colorado State, Thursday, 10:30 p.m., San Diego, ESPN2, 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Navy by 2 1/2

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