A year ago, Dave Ball was a long shot trying to beat the odds and make the Tennessee
Now, Ball, pardon the pun, is rolling, perhaps enough to put himself in the running for the starting job at left defensive end.
With Jevon Kearse just now back from off-season knee surgery, Ball has been getting time with the first unit at the spot since coming back from back surgery himself this off-season.
Defensive line coach Jim Washburn remarked a few weeks ago that if the season began now, Ball would be among his starters on the defensive line.
That’s quite an impressive climb for a man who was out of the NFL in 2007 after stints with the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets, as well as an appearance in the Carolina Panthers camp.
“Nobody should judge too much about who’s in there where, but based on last year, there ain’t no question [Ball should start],” Washburn said. “But last year is last year, and it’s about what happens now. But I meant that and I said it. He would have been the starter, based on what he’s done.”
The key for Ball is he has found a system that fits his abilities as a pass rusher perfectly.
“He just got in a different system. I think that’s the whole deal. He’s was in a 3-4, where they tried to make him play the five technique, and he can’t do that,” Washburn said. “He tried to be too heavy, and he’d had back problems before, and if you’re carrying too much weight and you’ve had back problems, that’s not very good. He’s in a good system for him.”
It’s something Ball would have never dreamed up when the Panthers cut him in camp before the start of the 2007 season, and he spent the year going to tryouts (including the Titans) but did not land on a roster.
And he tried not to get deflated.
“In 2007, I would have never thought that I would have been a major contributor to any team,” Ball said. “But regardless of ones, twos or threes or whatever, I’m just trying to get better and trying to have Coach Wash help me to be the best I can be.
“I have no grand illusions of being a superstar. I just want to help contribute and play hard and help us win.”
If he is anointed as a starter with a strong training camp and preseason, Ball says he is ready for the challenge and the additional responsibility that would come with it, and is ready to build on a 2008 season where he had 4.5 sacks and 28 tackles.
To be sure, much of Ball’s playing time and production came after Kyle Vanden Bosch suffered a groin tear in early October. But as difficult as it was for the Titans to watch Vanden Bosch go down, Ball probably benefited in shaking off some of the rust of not playing the year before.
“Coming into last year, I was just trying to feel my way around and trying to get used to it, probably for the first four games,” Ball said. “And then Kyle went down, and I’m in there and I get a lot of playing time, and I start getting better and start to improve and get comfortable.
“This year, I’m already comfortable. I want to kind of start off where I ended last year with a lot of momentum and playing with confidence and hopefully improve on my sack numbers and tackle numbers. Just kind of throw all the chips out and kind of fulfill my potential.”
That philosophy bore fruit on Thanksgiving Day when the Titans feasted on the Lions, and Ball ran an interception back 15 yards for a touchdown.
For now, the biggest change for Ball is shifting to the left side with Vanden Bosch now once again entrenched on the right side.
“I’m getting comfortable with it. I played primarily on the right last year and basically switched at the end of the season a couple of games to the left side, and I’m getting more comfortable each day with it,” Ball said. “All of last year, I played both sides in practice, so it’s just kind of going to be a gradual thing.”
And count Vanden Bosch among those who has been most impressed with Ball’s play this off-season.
“It’d be easy to label him as an overachiever and a guy who works really hard, but the thing that impresses me is he’s got a lot of ability,” Vanden Bosch said. “He’s got strong hands and really good instincts."