Vick Ballard’s position coach describes his prized tailback like he’s the third member of the Blues Brothers.
“He has a mission and a plan in life and he runs like he’s on a mission,” MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said. “When you got that – it’s that extra drive that carries him. I can see it in him but more importantly he sees it himself.”
Ballard has become the definition of efficiency in the Mississippi State running game this season. The former junior-college All-American leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring with 12 touchdowns in his first six games of Division 1 college football and is on pace to break Tim Tebow’s single-season rushing touchdowns record of 23.
“He does a great job of getting himself in the end zone,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s a physical runner that’s bigger than people give him credit for being.”
Ballard currently leads the team in rushing yards (418), touchdowns (12) and has the longest touchdown run of the season when he took the ball 75 yards to the end zone against Alcorn State two weeks ago.
Ballard finished State’s win against Houston with a team-high 134 yards on just 13 carries in a 47-24 victory over the Cougars where the maroon and white running game totaled a season-high 409 yards rushing.
“It’s no secret that we want to be a run, play-action football team,” Mullen said. “Right now, that’s where we’ve been the most successful.”
Mullen has attempted to replace the yardage missed by the graduation of Anthony Dixon, MSU’s all-time leading rusher, with a host of running options including allowing Ballard, redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins, junior Robert Elliott and quarterback Chris Relf all at least 13 attempts in the Houston victory.
The coaching staff is using the same language to describe the revolving door of running backs that Mullen used early in the season to depict the two-man quarterback rotation of Relf and Tyler Russell
“The rotation is going well (and) I think the guys are learning from each other,” Knox said. “They’re watching and learning when they’re not in the game. They’re getting a chance to see how the defenses are playing us and the plays are developing.”
Knowing he’s not going to get the workload of a traditional running back, Ballard has averaged over 7 yards every time he touches the football.
“I’m adjusting to it well and have to make the most of my carries,” Ballard said. “I always say I have to get in a groove.”
Ballard, at 6-foot and 205 pounds, was an NJCAA first-team All-American after rushing 1,728 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns while receiving a three-star rating from recruiting publications at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“When we recruited Vick, we thought he would be a very steady player because all the things we had heard about him, including his work ethic,” Mullen said.
In 18 games as a head coach at Mississippi State, Mullen’s offense has eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground in all but one contest and that was last year’s 29-19 home loss to Florida. The Gators defense put the clamps on Dixon by allowing him just 53 yards on 15 carries and forcing the Bulldogs offense to become one dimensional resulting in former senior quarterback Tyson Lee throwing three interceptions.
Ballard has had a touchdown in every game he’s suited for Mississippi State this year including one score in each of the three SEC contests.
State’s offensive staff knows they will need a hefty effort from the Pascagoula native to upset the 22nd-ranked Gators Saturday night (6 p.m., ESPNU).
“He continues to get better in every game and every week because he’s feeling more relaxed,” Knox said. “His understanding and knowledge has increased so I tell them all the time, the smarter they are – the better they are.”