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2023 Ball State Cardinals Positional Previews: Defensive front seven

A trio of returning linebackers will anchor the front seven, one of the Cardinals’ most intact position groups from last season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Illinois at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past three seasons, five Ball State linebackers have earned All-MAC accolades. In that same span of time, at least one member of the Cardinals’ linebacker core has finished in the top 31 players nationally in total tackles.

With all its accolades and statistical marks considered, Ball State’s linebacker unit has been among the MAC’s best in recent seasons.

Despite numerous changes across the Cardinals’ roster over the offseason — headlined by the loss of the MAC’s rushing leader, Carson Steele — the program’s pedigree in the heart of the defense remains unshaken.


This year’s new-look Ball State team will feature a constant image: a full depth chart of hard-hitting, aggressive linebackers who lead the team’s front seven.

Perhaps the most experience-laden group from a year ago, all three starting linebackers from 2022 — Clayton Coll, Cole Pearce, and Sidney Houston Jr. — will return for their senior campaigns.

Coll has appeared in every game (45, to be exact) since his arrival in 2019, providing leadership and on-field contributions that cannot be understated. Throughout his storied career, the star linebacker has logged a whopping 240 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles.

Last season, while serving as the team’s captain, Coll registered the MAC’s seventh-best mark in total tackles (110), and recorded two sacks. Earning All-MAC second-team honors for his efforts in 2022, defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton will look to Coll for strong production in his fifth season.

Ball State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Entering his sixth year at Ball State, Pearce will lead Ball State’s front seven in experience. Beyond his wisdom and leadership in the middle of the defense, the sturdy six-foot-one, 222-pound linebacker will also be one of the squad’s top pass rushers. Breaking through opposing lines with ease last season, Pearce led the Cardinals in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (14), and he tallied a career-best mark in tackles (85).

Pearce’s 2022 campaign was, by a wide margin, his most successful season while at Ball State, and his continued growth will be vital to Ball State’s success.

Rounding out the Cardinals’ talented core of linebackers is Sidney Houston Jr, a fifth-year senior who began his career at McKendree (Div. II). In his first year at Ball State in 2022, the acclaimed Div. II star made an immediate impact at the FBS level, recording 67 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and the squad’s lone defensive touchdown across 10 starts.

Houston Jr.’s six-foot-two, 245-pound frame makes him one the most physically-imposing linebacker on Ball State’s roster, an attribute which he must use to his advantage this season.

Some of the top reserves behind the aforementioned trio will be: junior Keionte Newson, junior Brandon Berger, redshirt sophomore Joey Stemler, and redshirt sophomore Dalton Elrod.

Newson is the most established of the second-string linebackers, seeing the field in all 12 games last season (while starting one), and logging 16 total tackles.

Defensive Line

Lining up in front of the star linebackers is an almost equally experienced group of defensive linemen who will provide a spark to Ball State’s 4-3 scheme.

In total, five linemen who started at least one game in 2022 will return to the Cardinals’ front seven this season. The most experienced and accomplished of these returners is redshirt junior Tavion Woodard.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Illinois at Ball State Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After seeing limited run in his first two years dawning the Cardinal and White, Woodard has been a defensive force over the past two seasons. The sizable six-foot-four, 259-pound edge rusher broke out in 2021, when he paced the Cardinals’ defensive line in tackles (28), recorded 5.0 sacks, and forced a pair of fumbles. Then, holding down a greater role last season, Woodard logged career-highs in tackles (35) and starts (10).

Behind Woodard, redshirt senior Jack Sape is the second most veteran defensive lineman, with 14 career starts to his credit.

The six-foot-four, 292-pound Michigander has been a quiet, yet consistent contributor during his time at Ball State. Across his four seasons playing primarily defensive end, Sape has notched 63 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a pass deflection. Although his efforts have been notable, his fullest potential has not been revealed, as he is yet to play all 12 games in a season.

In addition to Woodard and Sape — who will like eat up the bulk of the starts — junior Kyle King also returns experience on the edge, with two starts last year.

The 2022 campaign was King’s maiden season in Muncie, after transferring from Michigan State. The six-foot-four, 270-pound Greenfield, Indiana product was immediately thrust into the defensive line rotation last season, appearing in all 12 contests. King capitalized his opportunity, registering 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He will be in contention for wealth of playing time in his second season in Muncie.

The Cardinals certainly do not lack talent on the edges, and their interior linemen also bring firepower to the line.

Redshirt junior John Harris returns at nose tackle, where he started eight of the 11 games in which he appeared last season. As the consistent starter in the center of the line, Harris recorded 18 total tackles and a sack. The development of the Roncalli High School graduate will be key to Ball State’s defense in 2023.

Kyron Mims is the final returning defensive lineman with prior starts, as his resume features two starts in 30 appearances over four seasons. The 6-3, 293-pound lineman has shown a clear nose for the ball, pouncing on two fumbles in his career. Although he has yet to be a primary starter, Mims could see far more reps this season.

To bolster its already strong front seven, the Cardinals coaching staff welcomed five new additions at the linebacker and defensive lineman positions this offseason. Two veteran defensive line transfers hailing from FCS programs — Mikhari Sibblis (Lehigh) and James Makszin (Rhode Island) — headline the group of recruits.

This is the fourth in a series of Ball State football previews, with our next piece addressing the defensive backs. Please look forward to that! If you missed any of the previous parts, please check out our 2023 MAC Football Preseason Preview storystream here!

BSU’s season kicks off Friday, Sept. 1 at 12 p.m. Eastern time in Lexington, Kentucky, where they are set to play the Kentucky Wildcats.