Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Elkhorn South’s Cole Ballard Muscled His Way to a Preferred Walk-on Spot at Nebraska

January 14, 2023

Cole Ballard likes taking a hard hit. He doesn’t tolerate it, it’s not just a job hazard he’s learned to live with. He likes to get hit hard. And he likes getting back up to do it again.

He fell in love with football when he joined the KWAA Vikings and they won the championship. It was about the second grade. He played two-hand touch football before but didn’t like it as much. After all, he loved watching his older brothers play football and the popping pads. Once unleashed in pads with full contact, he found his calling.

“I kind of like that feeling of getting popped in the face and going out there the next play with the same guy again,” Ballard said. “That’s just my style of football. I like hitting people.”

Once he started hitting people he didn’t stop. He grew into a starting running back role in the state championship for Elkhorn South as a sophomore. That sparked a historic career with shattered scoring records. His physicality in an undersized frame nearly went unnoticed until it could no longer be ignored. Ballard reveled in a preferred walk-on opportunity at Nebraska. He kept that close to his chest with the interim coaching staff. He committed to that PWO role once he met the new coaching staff. With that, Matt Rhule’s coaching staff kept one of the state’s all-time scoring backs within the state’s borders.

“I think Nebraska is getting a real steal with Cole,” Elkhorn South head coach Guy Rosenberg said. “I know they’re excited to have him and I know it’s a dream come true for Cole and having that N on his helmet.”

Ballard’s 6-foot, 190-pound frame is packed with football legacy. His father played wide receiver at Air Force and Kansas, his grandfather played college football and his great-grandfather was a Maxwell Award finalist in 1939. And yet, he knew he’d be undersized as a freshman and likely wouldn’t play right away. So he hit the weight room. He needed to get bigger, faster and stronger. At that point, Rosenberg also made the decision to move Ballard from slot receiver to running back. Ballard said it was probably the right decision. He contributed as a sophomore and saw his role grow later in the season. The Storm’s running backs were plagued with injury. Ballard stepped into that role and started in the title game.

Ballard generally played beyond his frame. When asked if he played with a chip on his shoulder because of his size compared to other backs, he said he didn’t alter his game at all. He stayed confident in his own abilities.

“I know my strength, my elusiveness, my ability to follow blockers is probably my strength and I know that the guy across from me probably can’t go 40 plays against me,” he said. “So I just use my strengths.”

He played alongside notable Huskers while at Elkhorn South that season. He kept in touch with a few of them but is more excited to see them again in Lincoln. Ballard also played basketball and ran track but he focused on football. By the time his junior season started, he was the go-to back.

Ballard ran for 1,208 yards and 23 touchdowns on offense and tallied 18 tackles on defense as a junior. That opened the door for his historic senior season. Ballard ran for 38 touchdowns as a senior, including a Class A record seven in a half. That last part was his favorite because, months removed from the season, it gets crazier to think about. Ballard also accumulated 1,984 all-purpose yards as a senior despite leaving the playoffs prematurely. He suffered a foot injury in the fourth quarter against Creighton Prep.

“When I was trying to go back in my foot was like cracking on the sidelines and I knew it probably wasn’t smart for me to go back in,” Ballard said. That crack was the result of a lisfranc injury, essentially a broken or torn part of the mid-foot. He’s already undergone surgery and should be 100% in May.

Ballard wanted to continue his passion for hitting people into college. He received scholarship offers from Division II schools and South Dakota State heavily recruited him. The now-FCS champions didn’t offer, Ballard said, because they probably got the feeling he wouldn’t go there. Nebraska tugged at him but not by coaching staff. Scott Frost’s Huskers didn’t pay him much attention. That changed when Mickey Joseph took over as interim head coach. Nebraska invited Ballard to a game day visit and Joseph offered him a preferred walk-on spot. It wasn’t a difficult decision but he waited until the new coaching staff arrived.

Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton visited Elkhorn South first and Ballard said he immediately loved him. Head coach Matt Rhule, a former college walk-on himself, validated Ballard’s decision immediately. He committed on December 3.

“From the beginning I kind of knew I wanted to play for Nebraska,” he said. “It wasn’t a hard decision for me.”

He fits the muscular, developmental style Rhule likes. Going into his senior year, Ballard benched 295, squatted 405 and maxed at 285 on hang clean. He hasn’t gotten to test his lower body since his injury.

Rosenberg beamed about Ballard. Not only did he excel at running back in various situations, he’s a 4.0 student and quality young member of society. He caught passes out of the backfield when needed, he developed into a vital special teams contributor and his high football IQ showed in his defensive snaps. But in those gritty moments at back, when 11 defenders attempted to stop him, is where he shined.

“He had some moments there where the yards are the toughest and everyone in the stadium knew he was getting the ball,” Rosenberg said. “He’s a guy who finds a way to get it done.”

Rosenberg said Ballard is a great culture fit for Nebraska. He’s a hard worker and absorbs information. He maximizes every snap and every rep. That makes him a fit for the walk-on program, at one point a core pillar of the Nebraska football program.

“He had an impact in all three phases of the game but had a huge impact as a captain and a servant leader,” Rosenberg said. “He’s hungry and always wants to improve his craft and makes out his physical skills. That’s a great way to build the program and I like the template Nebraska has put in place.

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