ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Montee Ball wants to test himself, and he wants the most rigorous challenge possible.
During the first one-on-one pass-protection drill for running backs Saturday morning, he asked for it -- and got it. He faced nothing but first-teamers: Danny Trevathan once, and Nate Irving twice. Both got to the tackling dummy used for where the quarterback would be standing.
No one was harder on Ball than the second-year running back himself.
"Today, I don't think was good," he said. "I didn't do too well today in the one-on-one's with the linebackers, because I'm challenging myself and going against the best linebackers we have -- on purpose, because it's going to make me better."
Ball handled his blocking responsibilities during the team periods of practice with greater success. That's the situation that matters most, anyway, rather than an open-field drill in which an oncoming pass rusher has no reason to account for the other possibilities of the play.
And based on his work in blitz pickup late last season, when his repetitions increased, the one-on-one period was an exception rather than the rule of his developmental curve.
"He did a good job last year as a rookie," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "Usually you don't say that about a lot of guys, and he has only gotten better since the spring and training camp with the first three practices."
That's exactly what the Broncos need to see from Ball, who is expected to replace free-agent departure Knowshon Moreno -- and, they hope, replicate or surpass his effectiveness and production.
Ball didn't see Moreno's winding development to his breakthrough 2013 season. He only saw the finished product, a quick, versatile player who could block, receive and run to equal effect.
"His physical mentality that he had before every snap in practice and the game. He was a very, very physical runner and I most definitely am going to try to throw that into my game and be more physical in pass protection. He took a lot of pride in pass protection. I'm, most definitely trying to steal that from him."
Ball has shown signs of being the same kind of back, incorporating the afore-mentioned improvement as a blocker. Moreno was also a capable receiver, and Ball has shown similar effectiveness at that task during training camp. That was evident Friday when he caught a pass from Peyton Manning up the right sideline in spite of tight coverage from Danny Trevathan.
In every facet of his game, Ball feels that his slightly increased bulk will help. He said in May he was at 220 pounds, and planned to play the regular season at 218.
"Upper-body strength," he said. "Upper-body strength to protect the ball a lot better, take more hits, deliver a lot more hits and be able to pick up pass protection."
And as Ball's bulk and understanding of the pro game has changed, so has the guidance given to him by Running Backs Coach Eric Studesville, who, like Ball, spent years of his life in Madison, Wisc.
"He's a lot more confident in me. He takes me to the side and he just says, 'Hey, we need you to move faster here on this play. We need you to do this, we need you to do that.'
"He will yell at me," Ball admitted, "but I can tell he has a lot more confidence in me and he's a lot more comfortable with me in the backfield."
So is Gase.
"You can see it has slowed down for him, protection-wise especially," said Gase. "He is a natural runner, but with the schemes that we run we are trying to do things that fit him as well."
And by subjecting himself to the sternest tests in practice in the areas where he needs work, Ball hopes the result is a second-year running back who fits in anything Gase and Studesville ask.