ENGLEWOOD, Colorado — The starting job at running back isn't the only thing Montee Ball lost during his month on the sideline recovering from a torn right groin.
The Denver Broncos' second-year pro said he eliminated sweets and cut down on carbs and fried foods during his rehab because at 224 pounds, he wasn't hitting the holes fast enough.
So, he dropped a dozen pounds and now tips the scales at right around the weight he was at Wisconsin and two pounds lighter than he was at the NFL combine in 2013.
"Today I felt great out there," Ball said Wednesday following his first practice since he was hurt Oct. 5. "I felt a lot more elusive. I felt a lot more agile. And this is where I should have been at the beginning of the year."
Ball said he realizes Ronnie Hillman deserves to remain the starter — for now — after leapfrogging him during his absence "because the running game has been a lot better since he's been in there."
"He did a great job of taking that job from me," Ball said. "He should start now because he did a great job. But I'm going to most definitely be working for that spot again."
Hillman, who's quicker and more decisive at the line of scrimmage, has rushed 363 yards and three TDs while averaging 4.3 yards a carry also catching 17 passes for 121 yards and a score in Ball's absence, giving Denver a legitimate ground game to go with Peyton Manning's passing prowess.
When he got hurt, Ball was averaging 3.1 yards a carry, a significant drop-off from the 4.7 he averaged as a rookie.
During his time off — which followed several missed practices in August after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, Ball said he watched film and realized he was pitter-pattering too much at the line of scrimmage.
It wasn't entirely his fault: Behind a reconfigured offensive line that's had its share of troubles, Broncos backs have seen at least three carries go for no gain or negative yardage in seven of their eight games so far.
Defenders have consistently found the gaps between center Manny Ramirez and guards Orlando Franklin, who's still adjusting to his switch from tackle, and Louis Vasquez, who isn't playing at his Pro Bowl level of a year ago because of nagging back and ribs injuries.
Ball took it on himself, however, to do what he could during his time off to get better prepared for a stretch run like he had last year.
"It was kind of my plan, so I could move better, hit the holes faster," he said. "I was 224 when the injury happened. I'm 212 now and I most definitely love it. This is where I was at in college, and I feel a lot more comfortable at this weight."
Ball played at 220 pounds last year.
"So, this is the lightest I've ever been in the NFL and I'm loving it," Ball said. "I haven't been hitting the holes fast. I've been doing too much second-guessing."
Ball said he felt fine after Wednesday's workout and ice tub soak. He said he no longer is in any pain and hopes to return Sunday when the Broncos (6-2) visit the Oakland Raiders (0-8).
Ball got hurt when he accidentally did the splits while chipping a defender before going out on his route in a game against Arizona. But he said his right groin was actually sore since the start of the season.
"I wasn't telling anybody about it. I was just trying to work through it on my own," Ball said.
Tearing the groin, Ball said, "was a blessing in disguise because I'm learning how to be a pro and learning better ways to take care of my body."
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
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