Not much was known about cornerback Corey Ballentine when the Giants selected him in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Playing for Division II Washburn University, that is to be expected. But while few had heard his name before the draft, his name has been heard more and more coming out of practice over the last week.
Thursday night he took that play from the practice field to the playing field.
“I am a big fan of his,” Giants’ head coach Pat Shurmur said. “If you’re going to play in this game and have success, you have to be tough and competitive. He is both. He’s had to go through some adversity here, but we’ve seen him compete and make plays in practice. I said it today when we were doing our in-house stuff. Some guys can learn it in the meeting room, but can’t take it to the practice. Some guys can. There are some guys who can take it to the practice field, then when they get out here, it just goes away on them. It was obvious that he competed out there just like he did on the practice field, and that’s a good thing.”
Competing and taking work done on the practice field and bringing it to the game are sentiments that Ballentine himself echoed.
“I mean,” Ballentine said, “just taking it from practice and transitioning to the game was a big thing I was trying to focus on, and just improving. Coach put me in the right position, and it was up to me to make the play. So, I went out there and tried to do my thing.”
The Giants might have found their new kick returner
Ballentine took advantage of injuries to Sam Beal and Grant Haley to get first-team reps during practice and capitalized Thursday with stand-out play. While his stock is rising as a defender, Ballentine’s most important play for the immediate future was perhaps not on defense, but on special teams.
Ballentine had the chance to return a kickoff after the Jets’ second touchdown, and the result was impressive.
“The second one, I handled it a little bit better,” said Ballentine, who mishandled his first return effort. “I think they wanted to see what I could do. I think I’m back there because they know what I can do, and it’s just up to me to prove it. I enjoy being back there, and I’m looking forward to doing it more in the future.”
The Giants should certainly plan to have him in the end zone to return kicks. Ballentine got some great blocks on that play, but his acceleration and vision really helped to change a good return into a great one. Corey Coleman broke out as a kick returner upon joining the Giants’ roster last year, and that paved the way for him to enter the conversation for the third wide receiver spot before being injured at the start of training camp.
Did Ballentine’s return similarly open the coaches’ eyes to his potential?
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I hope so,” Ballentine said. “I’m hoping to do it some more in the future. I just have to not get ahead of myself and take it step by step, and I think I can do some good things back there.”
If Ballentine is able to build on his kick return it will likely lead to a steady spot on the Giants’ 46-man game day active roster. Once there, he has the chance to get on the field and play some defense — something he has been doing of late and impressing.
Ballentine continued that impressive play late in the third quarter when he came up with a great interception, high-pointing the ball before running it back for a 21-yard return.
“That was just taking it from practice to the game,” Ballentine said. “I think I had a couple of those in practice where I was in that same position. Just trying to transition, play good technique, and not get a defensive interference like the first one. Just make a play on the ball and be an athlete, and play the game that I’ve been playing since I was young. Just have fun with it.”
“It’s hard,” he added later, “but I’ve been playing the position so long, you just kind of know by instincts. You kind of can tell by looking at the receiver if the ball is coming to him, his eye is getting big, the crowd gets loud, I kind of just know when to turn. Like I said, the first one I tried to bat away and they called PI, so the second one I just tried to catch it — it can’t be PI that way. So, I’m looking forward to more of those.”
And about that pass interference ...
While Ballentine’s kickoff return and interception are certainly highlight-reel plays, he was also a part of history. This summer the NFL changed the rule regarding pass interference to make the calls reviewable by a challenge from the coaches.
The change was made in response to the non-call of a blatant pass interference in the NFC Championship Game which likely changed the outcome of the game.
Ballentine has the distinction of being the first player to be called for defensive pass interference on a coaches’ challenge. The play was originally ruled a pass incomplete with Ballentine knocking the ball away, but was overturned when it became clear that he had ahold of the receivers hand throughout the route.
One of the biggest hurdles for young corners transitioning to the NFL is the difference between how pass interference is called in the NCAA and the NFL. Players are allowed to have contact throughout the route — though Ballentine still would have committed pass interference under college rules — while they defenders can only have contact for the first five yards in the NFL.
It’s an adjustment that needs reps to sort out.
“Yeah. It’s definitely different,” Ballentine said. “I’m not sure exactly how it was PI, so I’ll go and talk with my coach about it. But now that they can review it, I think it’s a whole different ball game. Maybe I just need to be a little more disciplined with my technique and play the ball better. That’s why I tried to catch the ball the second time instead of batting it away. Then I won’t have that issue.”
The rookie is right that the making pass interference reviewable will likely change the way games are called. Teams freely used DPI calls as weapons in the past, with explosive receivers forcing contact to pick up free yards even when they might not have caught the ball. The best cornerbacks have always subtly interfered with receivers — Darrell Revis was an absolute master of the technique — but now the margins of error will be tightened even further.
“I didn’t know, but I had forgot that they made that rule that they could look at the defensive pass interference,” Ballentine said. “Once they had it up on the big screen, I kind of figured they might call that. I didn’t really see what I did wrong, but I was just ready to go out there the next play and keep going, and make a play on the ball.”
Looking to improve
Ballentine had himself a good night against the Jets. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes and doesn’t have room for improvement. He does, and more importantly, he is the first to admit it.
“I’m a professional now and that’s just something I’ve got to get used to,” he said. “I don’t see it as an issue, but I think I’m perfectly capable of doing it. It’s just I’ve got to be more disciplined, that’s all it is.”
In addition to his pass interference call, Ballentine gave up yards after the catch after hesitating to make a tackle which he was in good position to make. But at this time of year, those are simply things to be added to the “To-Do list for practice.
Ballentine said, “Just working on, I think — because we don’t live tackle in practice, so it’s hard coming in the game and getting the right angle. So, I’m just going to work on that, and just cleaning up my technique and learning the playbook a little more, getting more confident in what I’m doing, and just going out there and being confident from the start. I kind of took a little bit to warm up to the game, but then I started playing better as I got more playing time, but I just need to start faster and I’m definitely going to work on that for next week.”