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On the Ball

Oct. 17, 2006

by Simit Shah

About 20 minutes after Georgia Tech capped a stirring 27-23 victory over Maryland to improve to 3-0 in ACC, Reggie Ball limped into the post-game interview room with several bags of ice taped to his leg.

The senior quarterback had absorbed a nasty hit on an 11-yard run in the third quarter and was shaken up enough for Tech to call a timeout to allow him to regain his composure.

When asked about the play, Ball smiled and dismissed any notion of being hurt. That same resilience was on display during the game, as Ball rallied the Jackets from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit. He ended up throwing for 161 yards and rushing for 84 more, including a crucial eight-yard touchdown run that helped narrow the Terrapin lead to two points.

The game and victory was another testament to Ball’s toughness, which has never been questioned in his four years at Georgia Tech. However, his teammates have seen a different side of their starting quarterback this season.

“He’s shown more leadership this year,” noted linebacker KaMichael Hall, a fellow senior. “He used to joke around a lot, but now he’s more quiet and focused. He’s taken his spot as a leader on this team. Who doesn’t make mistakes? He’s going to make mistakes every now and then, but he makes up for them in great ways. He’s a great leader.”

Ball has started all but one game in his career, and his resume reads like a roller coaster. His play has often left fans either cheering or scratching their heads, but this season has seen him perform more like a savvy veteran than a youngster trying to make every play.

Against Virginia Tech, it appeared that Ball reverted to his old habits when he threw back-to-back interceptions after the Jackets had jumped out to an early lead.

However, this time was different. Rather than let those mistakes snowball, he shook them off and rebounded on the next drive with a key third down conversion that set up a field goal that ended the first half on a positive note.

“Most people, if they’ve done anything worth doing, they’ve failed back-to-back,” explained offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. “It’s happened whether you’re in business or sports. Unless you’re so arrogant to say you’ve never done it, everyone has failed back-to-back. He just happens to do it on a stage in front of millions, where most people can hide it.

“I told him that he just needed to keep playing,” he continued. “One of them was a mistake on his part, and the other one I told him to do it 100 times out of a 100. If you’re throwing it to 21 (Calvin Johnson), he’s going to catch that ball more than he’s going to miss it. It just happened that it was in the sun. You just have to jump back on it.”

“He went out and handled it well,” added Chan Gailey. “He threw some other balls and made some completions, including a big third down completion. There were a lot of good things that happened after that. He didn’t like it, but he handled it OK. He’s been pretty good about coming back. I don’t think it bothers him as much, so that has to do with maturity. He doesn’t like it, and he learns from it. He doesn’t let it affect his next series as much.”

That sequence served as a microcosm in the transformation of Ball. He’s found an increased comfort level in Nix’s new offensive scheme, which features a more wide-open attack. The result has been increased scoring output of more than 10 points over last season, and Ball’s 130 efficiency rating through six games is a career high.

“He’s playing with poise, but I’m not so sure it’s not the 10 other guys around him that attributed to a lot of the difference,” said Nix. “They are playing well and making plays. There are a lot of those guys that playing well. I think he has confidence in those guys, and that goes a long way.”

The playbook has also featured a healthy dose of running plays for Ball, and he’s already rushed for 391 yards through six games. That includes a 130-yard performance on the ground against Troy, setting a single-game school rushing record for quarterbacks. He has already surpassed the career-high of 384 yards amassed his freshman season, and he is on pace to break Joe Hamilton’s career rushing mark of 1,758 yards.

“I think it gets him into the game a little bit more,” said Nix. “He enjoys being physical, and the competitor he is, that gives him an outlet. If he’s thrown an interception, [running the ball] gives him an outlet to get some of that aggression out on someone else.”

Having entered the season with 37 touchdown passes and 41 interceptions, Ball has largely avoided costly turnovers this season with 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

“I think the (win-loss) record speaks for itself,” Ball said. “I’m not a big stat guy. We have more wins than I think we’ve had the past years, so that’s all that matters.”

“He’s feeling better every week, and he’s feeling more comfortable every week,” Nix noted. “We’re able to do a little more every week and add more, taking it a step further.”

While he’s taken several steps forward on the field, Ball has sidestepped the spotlight off the field. Over his first three years, the loquacious Ball was always willing to speak to reporters and could be counted on to deliver bold statements on a regular basis.

However, he’s steadily declined to address the media this season, even imposing a total blackout during preseason practice. Ball participated in the team’s media day session prior to the start of practice and didn’t talk again until after the Notre Dame game. When he has spoken to the media this season, he’s had a lot less to say and has quickly gone from one of the most quotable players to the least.

“He’s a guy that could be quoted in the paper every day, and kids all over America would love for that to happen,” said Gailey. “But he wants to focus on playing and not what he’s going to say after practice or what he has to say in an interview. He’s rather not do that and concentrate on football. To me, that’s refreshing.”

“We tried to make him something that he wasn’t those first three years by making him talk to the media,” added Nix. “He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to. That’s not who he is. He doesn’t want the spotlight on him. He doesn’t want those things.

“I give Coach (Gailey) a lot of credit for respecting that. It’s one less thing that he has to deal with. Some guys are good at it and like it, while some guys thrive on it and have to have that media attention. Some guys, they just don’t want it. They just want to play the game. That’s sort of way Reggie is, he just wants to play and go do his thing, and that’s exactly what he’s doing this year.”

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