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Monday, October 24, 2011
Updated: October 25, 11:46 AM ET
More than blocks, Ballard's got hands

By Ian Begley
Special to ESPNNewYork.com

When Kevin Boss bolted for Oakland in August, most Giants fans panicked.

Jake Ballard, for one, heard their reaction loud and clear.

"They thought we needed a tight end and wanted me out pretty much. [They thought,] 'Oh, he's a big, slow, blocking tight end, he's not going to catch any passes,'" Ballard said.

And he understood the sentiment.

Jake Ballard
Jake Ballard has caught 15 of 17 passses from Eli Manning. The highest catch rate among tight ends, according to FootballOutsiders.

When Boss left, the Giants were left with three underwhelming options to replace him: Travis Beckum, Bear Pascoe and Ballard, a block-first tight end with zero career catches.

"You lose a tight end like Boss -- a great player, blocker, receiving threat -- and you've got some guy coming in who really didn't have much experience," Ballard said, referring to himself. "I'd be iffy too."

If you're still "iffy" about Ballard, you haven't been paying attention. The undrafted free agent from Ohio State has produced week in and week out, leading many to wonder: Is there a new Boss in town?

In the Giants' Week 6 win over Buffalo, Ballard had five catches for 81 yards, one of which set up a 1-yard Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown run.

The week prior to that, Ballard caught three balls for 72 yards and a touchdown.

In the Giants' win at Arizona in Week 4, he made a clutch catch in the back of the end zone with under four minutes to play to help spark a comeback. "I'm just trying to prove [the doubters] wrong week to week and play with a chip on my shoulder," Ballard said.

Count Brandon Jacobs among those who believe. After the Seattle game Oct. 9, Jacobs approached Ballard in the locker room.

He said, "I thought we needed a tight end, but you're proving me wrong week to week so keep doing it."

And Jacobs isn't alone. Plenty of Giants are now on the Ballard bandwagon. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride called him the biggest surprise of the season. "I didn't think he'd be as versatile as he is right now," Gilbride said.

But Ballard hasn't surprised the coaches who know him best.

"Any time he's had balls thrown to him he's caught them," said John Peterson, Ballard's position coach at Ohio State. "But he was selfless; he did whatever the team needed him to do."

No, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard wasn't a walking top 10 highlight in Columbus.

He was used primarily as a blocker on the edge to protect Terrelle Pryor and aid the Buckeyes' ground game. But he made plays when given the opportunity.

With Ohio State facing a third-and-13 and up 2 points on Oregon with under 10 minutes to go in the 2010 Rose Bowl, Ballard hauled in a pass at the apex of his jump and in the midst of four Ducks defenders, giving the Buckeyes a key first down.

Five plays later, Ohio State scored to seal the win.

"Those of us who have known Jake for most of his life are not surprised," said Rodney Roberts, who coached Ballard at Springboro High (Ohio). "He has the best set of hands of any kid that I've ever coached, played against or seen in 15 years."

The question is, can Ballard continue to showcase those hands?

At his current pace, the 23-year-old is projected to surpass Boss' 2010 numbers (35 catches, 531 yards).

He's caught 15 of the 17 balls Eli Manning has thrown his way (the highest catch rate  88 percent --among tight ends, according to FootballOutsiders.) But it's going to be difficult to maintain that efficiency as defenses start to pay attention to Ballard.

"We have already talked about some ways to try to get ahead on that," Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope said.

If Ballard can stay ahead of the curve and continue to execute, Giants fans may soon forget all about the loss of Boss.

And while Ballard has nothing against Boss, he probably wouldn't mind that.

"When I got to camp they pretty much just thought & 'If I make the team, [I am] going to be the blocking tight end,'" Ballard said. "I tried to show them in camp I was more than that. Hopefully it's working."