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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Ball State Cardinals defensive front seven

Former Co-MAC Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin provides a much-needed veteran presence on Ball State’s defense.

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Just two years ago, an impressive accomplishment was captured within Ball State’s front seven. The 2020 MAC champion Cardinals landed all four of their linebackers on the All-MAC team. Inside linebacker Brandon Martin and outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe qualified for First Team, outside linebacker Christian Albright was selected to the Second Team, and inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas earned Third Team honors. That wasn’t it for Ball State linebacker recognitions in December 2020. Several days later, linebacker Jimmy Daw won Defensive MVP honors the MAC Championship Game.

All five members of Ball State’s stacked 2020 linebacking corps returned for 2021, due to the extra year of eligibility all NCAA fall athletes received as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the eligibility clock resumed this offseason, draining plenty of talent in the Cardinals linebacker room.

Of those five, just Brandon Martin still remains in Ball State’s 3-4 defense.

Martin was the 2020 MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, sharing the honor with Central Michigan defensive end Troy Hairston. In that season, Martin registered a MAC-high 90 tackles in eight games, complete with six tackles for loss. The run-stopping specialist played a major hand in stifling Buffalo’s third-ranked rushing attack to 134 yards on the ground in the MAC Championship — less than half of the Bulls’ season average of 287.

Martin suffered a knee injury in the opener last fall, limiting his on-field presence to just four contests. Still, he showed production reminiscent of his 2020 campaign upon return, compiling 10 tackles and an interception against eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois in mid-November. The battle-tested linebacker has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his time in Muncie, but he has recovered and demonstrated quality on-field execution following each misfortune. He’ll have the opportunity to do that again with a new-look linebacking corps in 2022.

One of the names that emerged during Martin’s extended absence last season was inside linebacker Clayton Coll. Coll didn’t qualify for All-MAC honors, but his résumé was certainly worthy of that label. He collected 104 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pair of interceptions, and a forced fumble in a breakout season. The 6’3”, 235 pound backer forms a combo with Martin that is very accomplished in the stat sheets, forming one of the better linebacker pairings in the conference.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Ball State at Georgia State
Clayton Coll was one of three Cardinals to exceed the 100-tackle mark in 2021, along with former stars Jaylin Thomas and Bryce Cosby.
Mickey Welsh-USA TODAY Sports

However, the outside linebacker duo presents significantly more youth and inexperience on the Cardinals’ defense. Keionté Newson looks most suited for the starting role after serving as a reserve outside linebacker and special teams presence over the last two seasons. Newson recorded three tackles last year, and one of those tackles was a sack he registered in Ball State’s regular season finale win over Buffalo, which propelled the Cardinals to bowl eligibility.

Newson is set to serve as the strong side linebacker, while the weak side linebacker is likely between Brandon Berger and Sidney Houston Jr. Berger is an incumbent member of the roster, who primarily operated in a special teams role last year. Houston transferred up from McKendree University at the Division II level, where he notched first team all-conference honors as a sophomore. True freshmen could make a splash in the rotation as well, especially three-star 2022 recruits Ashton Carroll and Danny Royster, who hail from Roanoke, VA and Indianapolis, respectively.

The depth at inside linebacker comes with more of an exclamation point than a question mark. Cole Pearce stepped up in Martin’s absence last year, tying for eighth on the team in total tackles by season’s end. Pearce’s presence was essential to the Cardinals’ signature upset win over Army, as he barricaded the triple option to the tune of 14 tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage. If Ball State wants to maximize experience on the field, the team could possibly shift one of its three inside backers to the outside, which would give Pearce an increased role after the numbers he churned out last season.

Ball State’s defensive line doesn’t have a member with the accolades of Martin, but it is still an established group with three returning starters from last season. Justen Ramsey has the most starts under his belt in the unit, starting seven of eight games at nose tackle during Ball State’s 2020 MAC title run. Ramsey increased his statistical outputs in his second year as a starter, finishing with three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2021.

The defensive end combo of Tavion Woodard and Jack Sape combined for 12.5 tackles for loss last year. They carried a bulk of the load in that department, and they’ll need more faces to step up alongside them, considering Ball State ranked in the bottom 10 in tackles for loss per game. Sape contributed 19 tackles and one sack, while Woodard led all defensive linemen in tackles and sacks with 28 and 2.5, respectively.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Illinois at Ball State
Tavion Woodard racked up 2.0 tackles for loss in the 2021 opener against Western Illinois and closed with 1.5 tackles for loss in the Camellia Bowl vs. Georgia State.
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Promoting the pass rush within the front seven is another emphasis for Ball State this year. Last season, the team’s leader in sacks hailed from the free safety spot in Bryce Cosby. Increasing pressure in the front seven should consequentially benefit the Cardinals’ pass defense, which ranked 91st in yards allowed per game and 115th in opponent completion percentage last fall.

Depth behind Woodard and Sape includes Michigan State transfer Kyle King, who enters Muncie with four tackles and a sack to his name. The 6’3” King literally played a hand in the Spartans’ 38-17 victory over Miami (FL), batting down two balls at the line of scrimmage during the contest. He’ll provide valuable depth along with Joshua Tarango in an experienced defensive end group. Tarango has been a steady contributor over the last two seasons, wrapping up for 13 tackles in 2020 before elevating that number to 27 a year ago.

At nose tackle, John Harris and Kyron Mims are expected to follow Ramsey in the depth chart. Harris garnered 23 tackles in increased playing time, while Mims managed four tackles for his third consecutive season. With program veterans like Tarango and Harris remaining on the roster, Ball State exhibits commendable depth across its defensive line.

Ball State is concluding an offseason that featured immense player turnover and will soon trot out its refurbished squad on the gridiron. However, the defensive line and inside linebacker remain positions of strength and experience for Ball State amidst the mass turnover, though, some questions still need to be answered at outside linebacker. With starters from the heralded 2020 defense such as Martin and Ramsey back in the lineup, as well as developed talent from last year such as Coll and Woodard, the Cardinals’ front seven should be one of the team’s strong suits heading into 2022.