ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --When asked about where he is now compared to his rookie season, running back Montee Ball sounded like he was reminiscing on a goofy childhood photo.
"So much easier the second time around," Ball said, laughing. "Now [the playbook is] just super easy, so I'm able to play a lot faster."
Learning to play with quarteback Peyton Manning and his line-of-scrimmage calibrations was perhaps the biggest adjustment for Ball a year ago. Outside of 2011, when Russell Wilson was the starter, Ball said quarterbacks at Wisconsin didn't have the liberty to make their own adjustments at the line. Moving from that to a conductor like Manning was a little jarring.
"He's capable of making any check at any time, with two seconds left on the play clock," Ball said. "And you've got to be able to comprehend and react."
"Instead of being a little nervous in the backfield with Peyton, now I'm completely calm."
The second-year back credits a major part of that calmness to "kind of making my own checks" while watching film, guessing what Manning might do in that situation. He says he's now able to anticipate some of Manning's calls before they're made, speeding up his own execution.
He also noted the value of looking at in-game photographs on the sidelines with coaches between drives, something he didn't have in college.
Ball's increased comfort started to shine through late in 2013. He singled out Week 12, when he rushed for 40 yards on seven carries in New England, as the moment when things "started happening." A week later at Arrowhead Stadium, he busted out for 117 yards on 13 carries against the Chiefs, including a season-long 45-yard romp.
Ultimately, well over half of his production came in the final five games.
"I wish I had done that early on," he said. "I always tell myself, 'Imagine where I would have been at, at the end of the year last year, if I started fast.'"
"So that's what I'm doing this year: starting fast and keeping it going every week."
With public votes of confidence from the coaching staff and a hold on the starting spot, Ball should have every opportunity to do just that.