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Montee Ball: Ready for prime time

So many moments that running back Montee Ball has experienced in the last 17 months are the manifestations of dreams realized. Taking the draft-day phone call from the team he grew up supporting and hearing John Elway's voice at the other end of the line. Receiving his first tips from quarterback Peyton Manning. Scoring his first touchdown. Rampaging over the arch-rival Chiefs for his first 100-yard game as a pro. Playing in the AFC Championship and helping his team to the Super Bowl.

But until now, he's never started in the NFL.

That is poised to change, and he has done everything possible to make himself ready, from hours studying the playbook, to adding bulk in the weight room, to strengthing his core, to filling special-teams periods in practice by joining quarterback Peyton Manning near an end zone and working on his routes, perfecting his sharp cuts and refining his timing.

He's ready. But if the starting call had come late last year, he would have been equally prepared to start, as he answered every question posed of him in his role as the No. 2 back behind Knowshon Moreno. The fumbles that dogged his early-season play stopped. He ran decisively. The game slowed down. A peace settled over him, and that bled to his play. When he checked in for veteran Knowshon Moreno, in the midst of a career season, there was no drop off.

Months later, Ball would reflect on his late-season improvement, which began with his first 100-yard game at Kansas City in Week 13 — one week after he lost a crucial fumble in the third quarter at New England. A calm confidence settled over Ball, which he would later describe as a "complete turnaround."

"You started to see it. I started playing better. A lot more confidence," Ball said. "I wish I had done that early on because 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."

Starting fast — and being able to do so because the game has slowed down.

"You can see it has slowed down for him, protection-wise especially," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "He is a natural runner, but with the schemes that we run we are trying to do things that fit him, as well."

Ball is also ready because of his exposure to Moreno last year. Ball saw the Moreno who was the product of ups, downs and injuries. He saw a running back who grew as a pass protector, having improved every year.

"His physical mentality that he had before every snap in practice and the game. He was a very, very physical runner," Ball said. "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."

But to be physical, Ball needed to get stronger. He focused on upper-body work -- "to protect the ball a lot better, take more hits, deliver a lot more hits and be able to pick up pass protection."

The first test of his physicality came early in training camp, when the Broncos broke into one-on-one pass-protection drills in which their running backs and tight ends face the safeties and linebackers. Day after day, Ball lined up against Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving. At times, he struggled. But at others, he held his own. He wanted to prove himself against the best the defense had to offer.

"It's going to make me better," Ball said.

But there was just one roadblock: a sharp pain in the right side of his abdomen that awoke him at 2:30 a.m. the morning of Aug. 4. Hours later, he was wheeled into an operating room to have his appendix removed

Decades ago, this procedure would have sidelined him at least a month. In August 2014, he was back on the practice field 15 days later, and just four days after that, he was in the starting lineup for the third preseason game against Houston.

Against the Texans, Ball got the call on the game's first snap. And the second. And the third. By the end of the possession, he'd touched the football on five consecutive plays, accounted for more than half of the 66 yards gained and two first downs, leading the Broncos to a field goal.

Ball sat down. He had shown enough. The appendectomy was a memory. He had lost practice snaps, but little more. His body held up fine; just as important was that his mind did, as well — in how it handled the pounding to Ball's surgically repaired midsection.

"Yeah, that's pretty much exactly what it was, just to get used to getting hit and getting tackled and bringing that physicality to the game," Ball said. "It was more mental obviously because I was out for so long, but I'm glad that I had the opportunity to get some reps out there."

Two days later, Ball was back on the practice field. His body having responded to the hits against Houston, there was no question as to whether he would be ready for Indianapolis tonight. He went back to his usual work: snaps with the team, and work off to the side with Manning, perfecting his routes out of the backfield and the timing on each. 

"I believe doing that stuff really helps," Ball said. "It really expands our offense and puts a lot of pressure on the defense by having a back that can catch the ball like that."

And it allows Ball to be everything the Broncos expected when they invested a second-round pick in him last year. It allows him to keep making his childhood dreams come true -- and, the Broncos hope, to actualize their ultimate dream for the end of this season, as well.

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