By Alex Byington
Harker Heights Herald
More known for his fluid plays on the diamond than what he did on the gridiron, Ryan Balentine never considered himself much more than a serviceable football player.
But when Trinity Valley Community College offered him a chance to play college football, who was he to turn it down.
"I didn't even think I was going to go to college, ... I figured I was probably going to go into the Army with one of my best friends," said the former Harker Heights quarterback and shortstop.
But with just a few weeks left in the recruiting process, coaches from Trinity Valley invited Balentine as insurance to keep fellow Knights teammate Marcus Banks, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive lineman, from being homesick.
"They figured if somebody goes with (Banks) that he knows, he wouldn't be (inclined) to go back home," Balentine said. "They wanted to bring me along just to keep him company."
The move proved to be a blessing in disguise for Balentine. After playing sparingly as a quarterback his first college season - throwing for 692 yards and four touchdowns - the Trinity Valley coaches decided to take advantage of Balentine's athleticism and moved him to receiver the spring before his sophomore year.
"It was weird because even when I played quarterback, I pictured myself playing receiver one day," Balentine said. "It's kind of funny. It's not what I wanted to do, but I knew it was what I had to do for my team to be better."
Originally fazed by the transition, it was Balentine's baseball experience at Heights that made the former shortstop feel confident in the position switch.
"It's all about hand-eye coordination," Balentine said. "(Baseball) coach (Glenn) Cunningham over there at Harker Heights was like one of my father figures. He took me under his wing and made me a better player and a better person."
But it was another former Killeen product - 21-year coaching veteran Darrell Wyatt, a 1984 graduate of Killeen - that took Balentine even further. As the then-offensive coordinator and receivers coach under Southern Mississippi head coach Larry Fedora, Wyatt recruited Balentine to the Golden Eagles in 2009.
Although struggling with just 15 combined catches through his first two seasons at Southern Miss, Balentine has experienced a break out season as a senior, helping a dynamic Golden Eagles offense in the process.
Balentine led the team with 742 receiving yards on 49 catches (15.1 yards per catch) and a team-high eight touchdown grabs while helping No. 22 Southern Miss (11-2) experience its best season in nearly a quarter of a century.
Balentine proved instrumental in sparking the Golden Eagles to a 49-28 beating of then-undefeated Houston (12-1), which had climbed as high as No. 6 in the BCS rankings, in the Conference USA title game on Dec. 3.
"It didn't really kick in until the weekend was over," Balentine said of being Conference USA champions, "and we're still going through phases of not really believing it's true but it feels great."