ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --When running back Montee Ball returns to game-time action, he will look different.
He's lighter -- down to 212 pounds, his lowest playing weight since being 210 pounds during his junior season at Wisconsin, when he had the best yardage-per-carry figure of his four years there.
He dropped eight pounds over the last four weeks he missed through changing his diet after being at 220 pounds early this season and 224 pounds prior to his August appendectomy. He noticed the difference upon his return to practice on a limited basis Wednesday.
Montee Ball was back in pads at practice on Wednesday for the first time since injuring his groin one month ago. Check out photos of him and the Broncos preparing for Sunday's game.
"I felt great out there. I felt a lot more elusive, a lot more agile," he said. "This is where I should have been at the beginning of the year."
But when he's cleared for a return to game-time duty after his groin strain -- which could be this week, but may be next week or even later -- he may not be where he was at the beginning of the season, when he was the first-string running back.
Ball remains listed atop the depth chart. But he's a realist. He sees the production of Ronnie Hillman, who has a 4.44-yards-per-carry average since Ball left the 41-20 win over the Cardinals on Oct. 5 with a groin strain -- 1.31 yards better than Ball's.
He knows that the starting job does not always await the injured player upon his return.
"The running game has been a lot better since he's been in there. I'm not going to sit here and lie to myself," Ball said.
"I understand that when I come back, he should start, because he's been doing a great job. But I'm most definitely going to be working for that spot again."
For now, his work continues to be based around recovery from the injury, which he describes as a "freak accident." He lost the weight, and focused on different muscle groups to regain core strength.
"(It is) an unfortunate situation for myself," Ball said, "but I'm looking at it on the bright side of things, as a blessing in disguise, because I was able to really work on a lot of other things in my lower body area in the training room, strengthening my glutes, my (hamstrings) and all that, becoming more flexible, which will prevent it from happening again."
He changed his post-practice routine. After Wednesday's work, he headed for the cold tub, something he
admits he did not do as often as he should have before.
"After working it out, I had a little inflammation and I worked to decrease that as much as possible," he said.
"It's learning how to be a pro, and learning better ways to take care of my body."And it's also about listening to his body -- something he admits he did not do in September, and now believes could have contributed to his injury.
"It (the groin) has been a little sore since Week 1, and that's my fault," Ball said. It's me growing up and teaching myself how to be a pro, I wasn't telling anybody, so I was just trying to work through it on my own.
"For any rookies that are coming in, make sure that you always tell them if you've got bumps and bruises."
He didn't, and now Ball searches for the silver linings: lessons learned about taking care of himself, the weight he wants to carry and about taking the steps needed to overcome a slow start.
Ball had little room to run early in the season; during the Broncos' first three games, he was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 20 of 49 carries. But he feels that he could avoided some of the contact if he had been at a lower weight.
"I haven't been hitting the hole fast," Ball said. I've been doing too much second-guessing. I watched film of the Patriots, the [AFC Championship] game that we played last year, and the film from the last game that I played, and I was just real indecisive.
"I can make some defenders miss, and being lighter is most definitely going to help."
But whether it helps him earn the playing time he had before is the question that now looms. The natural attrition of running back makes it likely that Ball would get another shot at some point, whether through injury or simply being the "hot hand" when he gets his shot in a running platoon.
But to keep it when he gets that next chance, he will have to earn it.
"When I come back, I'm going to work extremely hard to get that (starting spot) back," Ball said. "And that's the fun thing about it: competition when I come back."