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LUBBOCK, Texas – Not long ago, as Arizona State started practice in Tempe, coach Todd Graham watched senior running back Kalen Ballage work during ball-security drills.

Graham turned and told a couple of news reporters: “I think Kalen’s the most improved guy in our program.”

That should concern Texas Tech, which hosts the Sun Devils (1-1) on Saturday night at Jones AT&T Stadium. More than anyone else in the nation, the Red Raiders have a firm understanding of what Ballage can do. Last season, he tied an NCAA record against them with eight touchdowns in a wild 68-55 ASU win at Sun Devil Stadium.

What Ballage does for an encore – and how much his teammates help – will go a long way in determining whether the Sun Devils can finish their non-conference season on a positive. ASU’s Pac-12 season starts next week.

But most improved?

Graham explained:

“His peers electing him captain, I think that was the area we asked him to improve the most in,” he said. “When you’re a running back and a guy that gets the ball all the time, sometimes those guys, to get them to mature is difficult. Sometimes it’s very ‘I’ oriented. And, man, getting elected captain by his peers – I’ll be real honest with you, that was something that I was a little surprised by. I think it was an indicator of how hard he’s worked and served his team with his attitude and effort.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Ballage never has been a bad seed. Just think back to that Texas Tech contest last season. This was the running back’s moment. His time in the spotlight. His response: Taking the entire offensive line with him to the postgame news conference.

At the time, left guard Sam Jones told reporters he didn’t even know ASU held a postgame news conference. He usually just dressed and left.

Said junior tackle Quinn Bailey this week: “The O-line, I guess we just weren’t used to that type of thing after a game. Not like he was. We were kind of hesitant, but he wanted us up there. He convinced us it was important to him, so we went.”

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Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins’ reaction: “Kalen’s just a high-character dude. He cares – more for others than he does himself.”

With the Texas Tech rematch approaching, Ballage knew he’d be the focus of attention this week. He tried his best to deflect it. Reporters asked several times about last year’s game. Each time he politely but firmly said it didn’t matter. Last season was last season. It’s over.

He said a little more at Pac-12 Media Days in July, but the question – how scoring eight touchdowns put him on the national radar – was framed differently.

“The crazy thing about that is it did, but it didn’t,” Ballage said. “People still don’t know anything about the Pac-12. Like, I feel like somebody could score 500 touchdowns in a game and nobody would hear about it from down South or back East. I kid you not. It exposed me individually, but I don’t care about how exposed I am. I’m going to continue to do me. It doesn’t really bother me who knows my name or not.”

A little secret: Texas motivates Ballage. Not any specific program, but the often-accepted idea that the sport’s best players originate from the Lone Star State. Blame Ballage’s father.

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“He doesn’t believe that all the kids come from Texas, but I tell them a lot of the good players do,” said Reggie Ballage, raised in Texas before moving to Colorado, where he attended high school and raised his family. “He doesn’t like that.”

Said Ballage: “I’m a kid from Colorado. Christian McCaffrey is a kid from Colorado. Sam Jones is a kid from Colorado. You play football everywhere.”

ASU’s offense is off to a slow start. Behind shaky blocking, the run game ranks last in the Pac-12. Through two games, Ballage has rushed for just 123 yards, averaging 3.7 yards per carry. He said he isn’t concerned. It’s not a lack of talent. It’s not a lack of anything.

It’s just simple execution. Ballage believes it will come. Until then, he will continue to help in other areas. Before last week’s game, the Sun Devils gathered around Ballage in the end zone, where the running back delivered a few motivating words.

This is his job.

“I think my voice reaches a lot of people on this football team,” Ballage said. “When that’s the case, I feel like I’m obligated to say something to the guys and get everybody ready to play.”

RELATED: Power & speed: How ASU’s Kalen Ballage became an athletic freak

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected] Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller. Subscribe to the ASU Pick Six Podcast, available on iTunes. Download the ASU XTRA app for iPhone or Android.

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