ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In many ways, the 2014 season was a lost one for Montee Ball.
Yes, the second-year running back was the season-opening starter, and his starts in Weeks 1-5 were the first of his career. But from the moment he felt sharp pains in his lower right abdomen on Aug. 3 that led to an appendectomy a day later, his year went off the tracks.
He returned, but groin soreness set in during the Week 1 win over Indianapolis. By the third quarter of the Week 5 win over Arizona, he was out and would miss all but one game the rest of the season.
"Yeah. It was all just downhill from my appendectomy," Ball said. "But I believe everything happens for a reason. Mentally I'm a lot stronger this season, physically, as well, with upper-body strength. I think my flexibility from the offseason is going to really show, and keep me from getting hurt."
Taking steps to prevent a recurrence of the groin problems that limited him to 55 carries last year dominated the first three months of his offseason. Ball said Running Backs Coach Eric Studesville advised him to take a different approach to increase his flexibility.
"He told me, 'Don't just go out there and run hills; don't just do stuff like that. Switch it up,' and for me, flexibility has always been a huge issue," Ball said. "So doing Pilates and doing some yoga has really helped me out with flexibility, and I believe it will prevent a lot of injury."
Months will pass until Ball knows the end result of his work. So far, he is encouraged.
"I feel great. I never felt this good before," Ball said. "I'm ready to go."
Until last year, Ball's durability was one of his defining characteristics, dating back to his endurance at Wisconsin despite carrying a heavy workload. During his final two years in Madison, he touched the football 697 times, but did not miss a game.
Watching 11 regular-season games from the sideline gnawed at Ball. He remained a supportive teammate as Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson carried the load, but frustration and self-doubt stalked him.
"The one thing that I take from last year is all the mental battles I was going through while I was hurt -- being on the sideline, doubting myself and all that," Ball said. "I think it's going to make me stronger. It's made me stronger in my offseason program. It's making me stronger now going through this offseason program."
It's a program that he enters as one of the backups. Anderson seized the top job by his performance from Week 10 onward, when he burst from the third line of the depth chart to the Pro Bowl.
But the competition is open. And even if Anderson wins it, the natural attrition of the position and the Broncos' increased emphasis on the run means that whoever ends up No. 2 will see plenty of touches -- almost certainly more than the 140 combined carries and receptions Ball amassed as the backup running back in 2013.
"Of course C.J.'s going to be No. 1 out of the gate, because he deserves it from what he did last year," Ball said. "But I told him, 'You're the guy right now, but I'm coming.' We're great friends, and it's going to be great competition which is going to make the offense better."
And with the emphasis on zone blocking, it's an offense Ball has long adored, dating back to his childhood as a Broncos fan, when he idolized Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and the other running backs during Head Coach Gary Kubiak's 11 seasons as offensive coordinator.
"I most definitely love it. Growing up watching it all the time, now I'm able to really get back into it," Ball said. "I'm excited for us. Us running backs, we're licking our chops."