For Ball State fans, the thing we point to most is the shiny points on the scoreboard and the lofting bombs from Keith Wenning to Willie Snead or Jamill Smith as the thing to watch for those unfamiliar with the Cards' program and system. Sure, offense is sexy. Chicks dig the touchdowns. But for those in the know about the Ball State Fighting Football Cardinals, it isn't the offense that's getting the eyeballs this offseason, it's the defense. Or more importantly, the people on it. As in: Can the people on it step up their performance to a serviceable level for the MAC. That's the difference between success and failure this season and our #42 MAC Countdown player is one of the pivotal cogs in that unsexy defensive wheel, Ball State defensive tackle Nathan Ollie.
Ollie stacks up as a 6'1" 295-lb. senior defensive tackle from Chicago, Illinois who has managed to become a stalwart leader on a defensive unit that has been overshadowed by its offensive counterparts for his entire career. That's partly to blame for his lack of eye-popping accomplishments from others, landing only a Second Team All-MAC selection after his sophomore season and a Third Team All-MAC selection last year. Ollie has been a consistent presence on the defensive line for the Cards, and more importantly, a frequent visitor to opposing teams' backfield. He even blocked an extra point in 2011, which I'm sure is what catapulted him to Second Team status.
His stats don't necessarily cause you to go bananas, but figure in the fact that he almost always is double teamed and you begin to see the impact he has and the chaos he can create. He's started the last 25 games for BSU, and that intangible experience warrants a special talking point, preferably lead by a Gruden-esque "This guy...". Play along at home. It's sweeping the nation.
This isn't to say that Ollie doesn't need to improve his efforts this year. Put simply, he most certainly does. For the Cards to have any chance of significant success, the front seven of the defensive unit needs to make life difficult for opposing QBs, and Ollie will need to be the driving force behind that. Currently, the defensive front is a bit of a question mark but with a slight uptick in performance and execution, Ollie can make that unit an exclamation point instead. (BOOM Grammar'd!)
His current averages per game work out to less than one tackle for loss per game, with just a shade under 4 tackles per game. For me, the litmus test for the defense starts with Ollie. If he can creep those averages up to a very reasonable 6.5-7 tackles per game and 1-1.5 TFLs per game then the defensive front actually has a chance to establish itself as a unit unto its own rather than the redheaded stepchild of the offensive pointgasm going on when the Cardinals have the ball. And considering the aspirations BSU has this season, a defense capable of actually stopping NIU and Toledo occasionally in those two pivotal games may mean the difference between BCS whispers and another mid-level Bowl berth.
Ollie will leave Ball State at the conclusion of his senior campaign in 2013. An uptick in quickness makes him a viable rushing end or linebacker in the NFL or a bit of an increase in size could make him a possible defensive end. He's the classic ‘tweener stuck in a body that's great for the MAC but just a notch too slow, small, or some other physical attribute that he has zero control over. Regardless of post-2013, BSU is counting on Ollie to step it up. The rest of the MAC should be hoping he doesn't.