MUNCIE – Ball State linebackers coach Johnny Curtis professes (with great exuberance) that he “loves to teach.” Well, he better, because this spring and next fall, the second-year Cardinal coach will be doing a lot of instructing.
The program's annual Red-White spring football game will be played Saturday at Schuemann Stadium at noon.
“Kids really want two things,” Curtis told The News-Sentinel following Thursday's practice, “one, they want discipline and structure, and two, they want coached.”
In the case of the Ball State linebackers, they are getting “coached” every second of every practice, mostly, because they need it.
The Cardinals graduated their three starting linebackers (Aaron Taylor, Sean Wiggins and Zack Ryan), who accumulated nearly 30 percent of Ball State's 893 tackles last fall.
Individually, the threesome ranked first, second and fifth on the team overall. Obviously, that leaves a gaping hole for Curtis to figure out how to fill.
“The thing that we needed to do was identify guys that can and can't produce for us right now,” Curtis said of this spring. “Whether that be younger guys or older guys, and right now, it's going to be younger guys.”
Curtis lost veteran Jeremiah Jackson and redshirt freshman (penciled-in starter) Brandon Martin to injuries, so an inexperienced squad became even more so. However, the positive is that the guys that are on the field (players such as Damon Singleton, Jacob White and Jaylin Thomas) are getting a lot of repetitions this spring.
“The growth in the reps that Damon Singleton got and Jacob White got and Jaylin Thomas got,” Curtis explained, “is going to be huge to our production.”
Jackson's and Martin's return definitely won't happen before Saturday, but it is feasible either or both could return in the fall. However, what the Ball State coaches are doing is creating competition with the open jobs, which leads to ultimately strengthening the unit's depth, which is something the program lacked at the linebacker position in recent years.
“No matter what level you are,” Curtis said, “good programs have depth and they have competition within that depth. This spring is a major start in building that competition and as we bring in this freshman class, they are going to push the younger guys. That is where you're going to see our program develop.”
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Wiggins, Ryan and Taylor played in a combined 144 games in their careers, somewhat because all three were really good players, but also because “there wasn't a ton of competition behind them,” according to Curtis.
Singleton is a redshirt junior, while White is a redshirt sophomore and Thomas is a redshirt freshman. They'll each battle for snaps along with KJ Singleton (redshirt sophomore), AJ Jaffal (redshirt sophomore), Cody Rudy (redshirt freshman), and Nickai Poyser (redshirt junior).
The 2017 Cardinal recruiting class includes six linebackers that will play if they are physically and mentally capable of doing so.
“We're generating a lot of competition,” Curtis said. “That is going to bring out even better play in the Ball State defense.”
New Cardinal defensive coordinator David Elson is the third defensive leader that a veteran like Singleton has played for, but Curtis said that change in leadership this season hasn't been an issue with either the coaches or the players, and he credited Elson for that.
“There is not a ton of difference,” Curtis said. “Football is football. (Coach Elson) has had openness and acceptance of what we have done in the past, the things that we said that we needed to fix and get better at from last fall, have been phenomenal.
“He has brought his flavor and his expertise and years of experience and just compounded what we did last year. It's made it better.”
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