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VOL. 129 | NO. 95 | Thursday, May 15, 2014

U of M’s Ballentine Happy to Be Irrelevant

By Don Wade

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He watched and waited. Kept watching, and kept waiting. And then with the 256th and final pick in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, University of Memphis safety Lonnie Ballentine learned he had been taken by the Houston Texans.

University of Memphis safety Lonnie Ballentine finds himself attempting to make the Texans’ roster as the last pick of the draft.

(Joe Murphy)

For being the last pick Ballentine earned the title “Mr. Irrelevant,” which has been bestowed upon the last pick since 1976.

“Mr. Irrelevant is fine with me,” Ballentine said in a conference call after the draft. “Just being drafted into the NFL is a dream come true. It’s another opportunity to show people that you are relevant, you know?”

The draft began with the Texans selecting South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall. The Texans chose Ballentine after 254 more picks went by. He watched the entire way.

“Every pick,” he said. “Every pick. Two hundred and fifty-five guys go by and I say, `Oh, man, this is not good.’”

But then came the call and now comes the challenge. Memphis coach Justin Fuente believes Ballentine has a real shot to make the Texans out of training camp.

“He’s a fantastic athlete,” Fuente said. “He can really run and jump and he has great size. He’s young, didn’t redshirt. He may have a pretty nice upside.”

Ballentine goes 6-3 and 219 pounds. In his four years with the Tigers, he made 176 total tackles, intercepted three passes and broke up 13 others. He started all 12 games at safety as a senior and his 58 tackles ranked fifth on the team. As a junior, his 66 tackles led the secondary.

At nfldraft.com, Nolan Nawrocki’s profile of Ballentine – written before the draft – focuses on his “intriguing physical tools.” His strengths are his “exceptional size, length and closing speed” and “straight-line striking ability when he has a clean angle.”

His weaknesses: “Does not play to timed speed (which is sub 4.4 in the 40-yard dash). Not a strong, face-up, wrap tackler … late to see plays developing … marginal career production on the ball.”

The reality for any defensive player taken in the seventh round is that he will have to show he can make an impact on special teams. Ballentine didn’t get much special teams work at Memphis.

“That’s what all these guys have got to do to make a squad,” Fuente said. “He’ll approach it with an eager mindset.”

Fuente lauded Ballentine for how much progress he made during his time at Memphis, saying, “When he came in, he didn’t necessarily have a great frame of reference for what it takes to play in the NFL, or even Division I football. He made large strides, really grew up.”

As Mr. Irrelevant, Ballentine and his family will be invited to Newport Beach, Calif., for activities surrounding Irrelevant Week in early June. It’s all tied to the Foundation for the Undefeated, a nonprofit organization in Newport Beach that champions stories of perseverance in sports as a way of inspiring others. It was started in 1976 by NFL alumnus Paul Salata, who says on the website, www.theundefeated.org, “It’s not a negative to be picked last in the NFL Draft; it’s an honor to be drafted at all.”

Ballentine agrees, but will also make use of the fact there were 255 players who went before him.

“I’m going to remember that,” he said. “That’s how I’m going to work and be motivated to come in and prove everyone wrong.”

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