Ball's ties to Wisconsin run deep
Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball is so connected to the state of Wisconsin that it's hard to remember he grew up in Missouri.
Whether it's the four years he spent playing for the Wisconsin Badgers or the off-season he spent training at the same place as Green Bay Packers rookie Eddie Lacy or the No. 28 Milwaukee Brewers jersey he has for throwing out the first pitch at Miller Park last April, Ball has connections.
Of them all, the one most important is to Eric Studesville, a Madison-born kid too small to play at Wisconsin, too old to have been part of the UW-Whitewater dynasty and too drawn to football to continue as a pre-med student.
Studesville, you see, is Ball's position coach.
There is no convenient story about Studesville having inside info on Ball that led to him winding up in Denver or breaking down John Elway's door demanding the Broncos draft the Badgers star.
It is really just a coincidence that the two wound up together, now just a victory over Seattle away from winning a Super Bowl ring.
“I had no idea I'd land with the Broncos,” said Ball, a consensus first-team All-American his senior year at Wisconsin and the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. “They did a good job of disguising it. They rarely talked to me.”
Ball knew of Studesville, however.
He remembered him as the assistant coach who helped New York Giants running back Tiki Barber deal with a chronic fumbling problem. He knew he was from Madison, but he had no idea he would be playing for him in 2013.
It turned out to be another good connection.
When Ball coughed up the ball twice in his first 31 carries—he lost fumbles just twice in 924 carries at Wisconsin—he found himself in the doghouse and Studesville was there to fix things.
“He's a great coach, he's helped me out a lot,” Ball said. “Obviously, I had a fumbling problem and he corrected that. We talked about that in the one-on-ones—and just talking about a lot of things, talking about life, how the NFL works and all the stuff.
“My fumbling the football is obviously in no comparison to his situation, but he was there for me, and he's always been there for me.”
Just as life had dealt Studesville a hand he could play—he was the only child of parents who were pillars of the community in Madison and held their son to the highest standards—it also served up an intensely cruel turn of fate.
In June, during a Broncos minicamp, he received news that his parents had been killed on their way to the Grand Canyon. Alphonso and Janet Studesville had been riding on a motorcycle when a truck towing a grain trailer moved into their lane and struck them head on.
“Losing both of them so unexpectedly, being an only child, it was tough,” said Whitewater football coach Lance Leipold, a Warhawks teammate of Studesville's in the mid-1980s and a close friend. “They were great people.
“You could see what they meant to the community at the funeral. I've never stood in a (receiving) line longer than that. It just shows you the impact they had on Madison and the respect that came with it.”
To that point, Studesville had the fortune of working for Dick Tomey at the University of Arizona and Mack Brown at North Carolina, then entered the NFL with the Chicago Bears (1997-2000) and continued on to the New York Giants (2001-'03) and Buffalo Bills (2004-'09) before joining the Broncos in 2010.
In his first season, he was named interim head coach after Josh McDaniels was fired after 12 games. The Broncos eventually hired John Fox as their permanent head coach, but rather than clear out Studesville, Fox hired him to coach his running backs.
It proved to be a smart move.
Studesville has been just the right man to help veteran Knowshon Moreno resurrect his career, get Ball back on track and make sure all of his running backs could handle the complexity of a Peyton Manning-run offense. The Broncos rushed for 1,873 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry in a pass-oriented attack this season
“I would just say if you're listening to him talk, he's a very intelligent football coach, but also he has that ability to connect to his players,” Leipold said. “Every one of those players (at running back) are very talented and very good athletes. But it has to be natural ability.
“Eric's strength is his ability to communicate with those players and maximize their talents.”
Ball got off to a slow start and faded as fumbles and Moreno's emergence led to the rookie seeing his playing time fall dramatically. In a span of eight games from Sept. 29 to Nov. 24, Ball carried just 44 times.
“I planned coming out, my goal was to be the starter. Obviously, that didn't happen,” said Ball, who was taken in the second round ahead of Lacy and behind North Carolina's Giovani Bernard and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell. “But I'm very glad how the situation happened. I thought we all contributed in a different way to the offense.”
Ball started picking up some steam late in the season, letting people know that he wouldn't be a second-round bust. In five of his last six games, including the Broncos' two playoff victories, he gained 43, 52, 72, 77 and 117 yards rushing.
“He has an extremely bright future in this league,” Studesville said. “He continues to get better. He's very smart. He has a tremendous work ethic and a passion for the game. Those things right there, once you get around guys, you want to see those qualities and characteristics. Those give you a chance.
“With our offense and our quarterback you have to be really, really sharp to pick up all the things we do. He came in and did it. It's always a growing process but he's picked it up, he's continued to develop as the year has gone on, each and every week. I have tremendous confidence in him.”
As a member of a running back class that did not feature a first-round draft choice, but four very good second-rounders—including Lacy—Ball knows he'll be in competition with all of them the rest of his career. Lacy led all rookie rushers with 1,178 rushing yards, followed by Bell (860), Bernard (695) and Ball (559).
However, Ball averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry, which is a sign he'll be in the discussion when the final chapter is written on this class.
“We all went through the same process,” Ball said. “And first off they're great guys off the field. But I'll always be connected to them because we're always going to be in the same draft class—always.”