Heading into last season, the storyline surrounding Ball State was the voluminous number of returning starters. This year, the theme is quite contrary as the Cardinals must replace a load of departed talent.
The mass exodus of longtime Cardinals included three members of the 2021 starting secondary. Of the many names no longer suiting up for the squad, the most notable is two-time First Team All-MAC selection Bryce Cosby. Cosby was the heart and soul of the defense, coining Ball State’s 2020 mantra “Detroit or bust” which ultimately came to fruition when the Cardinals — after six consecutive losing seasons — qualified for the MAC Championship Game in Detroit and emerged in victorious fashion. He intercepted multiple passes in all five years in Muncie and served as a dominant tackling presence — registering team-highs in tackles (108), tackles for loss (11.5), and sacks in his final go-around on campus.
Ball State must also replace strong safety Brett Anderson and cornerback J.T. Wahee, who ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the team’s tackling rankings last year. Anderson played a major role in the turnover game, forcing two fumbles and completing a scoop and score vs. Western Michigan, while Wahee proved to be potent in the secondary with seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
Of the core four in the 2021 secondary, the only returning member is Amechi Uzodinma, whose starting experience with Ball State dates back to 2018. Uzodinma escalated into star status as a sophomore in 2019, claiming Second Team All-MAC status after corralling a MAC-high five interceptions, ranking top 10 nationally in the category. He additionally batted 12 passes down in the phenomenal campaign, demonstrating the level of excellence he has stored within. Uzodinma is Ball State’s most established member of the secondary, and with him locking down one corner spot, that is one less area on defense the rebuilding Cardinals need to be concerned about.
Filling in the corner spot on the opposite side of Uzodinma should be Nic Jones, a longtime nickelback who is expected to make a transition to the boundary. Jones backed up Wahee last season and contributed 17 tackles along with three pass deflections. The Detroit native brings prior starting experience to the table as well, checking into the lineup as early as 2019, so there shouldn’t be a substantial learning curve with the junior cornerback.
Replacing Cosby in the safety room is not a task coaching staffs typically look forward to, but a veteran presence is expected to fill that massive void. Strong safety Malcolm Lee enters his final year with the program after operating in contributory reserve and special teams roles throughout the past four seasons. Lee entered 2021 with just 24 career tackles, but with expanded playing time, he doubled that amount to record 50 in his latest showing. The safety also lengthened his résumé by picking off his first two collegiate passes in conference wins over Eastern Michigan and Buffalo.
The final starting safety spot comes down to an array of candidates, including a pair of transfers the program brought in to build depth. Jaquan Amos is one of the new faces vying for a spot in the lineup. Amos spent last season buried in Iowa State’s depth chart, but the senior is ready to make a mark with an increased presence in Muncie. Prior to a brief stop in the Big 12, Amos proved he can thrive in a starting role by leading Villanova in tackles at the FCS level.
Loren Strickland is another candidate for a starting safety spot after witnessing immediate success at University of Indianapolis — a Division II program. Strickland holds redshirt sophomore status after bursting onto the scene as a freshman, racking up 94 tackles and deflecting 14 passes en route to all-conference honors.
The other name in the mix should be incumbent Ben Egenolf, a redshirt sophomore from Avon, IN. The Hoosier State native was thrust into a larger role toward the end of the season, picking up his first career tackle in the regular season finale against Buffalo before replicating similar production in the Camellia Bowl against Georgia State.
Ball State did a solid job establishing depth last season, which should prepare Jones and Lee for their new starting roles. Now, it’s time for the Cardinals to break in the next wave of future impact players at the defensive back positions. Jordan Riley-Scott (seven solo tackles, two assisted tackles in 2021) and Trenton Hatfield (one interception in the win over Army) are some of the lesser experienced players poised to provide valuable support behind the aforementioned safeties.
At cornerback, Tennessee transfer Chayce Bishop and redshirt junior Tyler ‘Red’ Potts should see plenty of action, especially in the nickelback or dime back roles Jones became accustomed too. Potts earned significant playing time in 2018 and 2019, recording one start and one interception, while notching 14 tackles across those two seasons.
Last year, Ball State’s secondary had a fortified presence at the line of scrimmage, especially due to Cosby’s presence, but there was still more to be desired from a pass coverage standpoint. The Cardinals ranked 91st in fewest opponent passing yards per game, yielding 243 yards per game on a 66 percent completion rate — the 16th highest opposing accuracy clip in the FBS. These are numbers Mike Neu and his defensive coaching staff hope to improve in 2022 on amidst all the roster turnover.
Uzodinma and the Cardinals’ secondary will first be put to the test on Thursday, Sept. 1, when the team flocks into Knoxville, TN for a matchup against the Tennessee Volunteers.