The Ball State coaching staff knew going into the 2017 season where its strength was and second-year coach Mike Neu has never shied this past off-season from acknowledging such.
“The defensive line is the strength of our football team, defensively,” Neu told The News-Sentinel following a recent practice, “and you could argue that it is the strength of our whole team.”
That was evident just one play into the Cardinals' recent 24-21 loss at Illinois.
The defensive line created enough problems on the first snap for the Illini offensive line that linebacker Jacob White was able to burst through and sack the Illinois quarterback. That set the tone early for the Cardinal defense, which played very well on the first and third Illini offensive series.
Ball State (0-1) will host UAB (1-0) Saturday at Schuemann Stadium in Muncie at 3 p.m. (ESPN3).
“There were a lot of positives for us to build on,” Neu said Monday despite the loss. “I was proud of the effort and proud that our guys put themselves in position in the fourth quarter with the lead.”
The Cardinals' defense generated four quarterback sacks and nine tackles for a loss, and seven of those stops (including three sacks) came courtesy of fifth-year senior Anthony Winbush, who was named as the Mid-American Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
“Winbush is very dynamic,” Cardinal defensive line coach Keith McKenzie said during training camp. “He's our best pass rusher. He does a lot of good things out there on the field.”
Winbush got his three sacks within a span of 4:24 to close a magnificent third quarter for Ball State, in which it seized control of the game. However, McKenzie said rushing the passer isn't the lone quality of Winbush.
“Everybody thinks that he can't play the run,” McKenzie said. “But he's gotten tremendously better at that.”
A year ago, the Ball State defense recorded an impressive 32 sacks, but the Cardinals graduated almost 20 of those. That left a lot of pressure – and more focus by the opposition - on Winbush, who led the team with 8 ½ sacks a year ago.
“That is great,” Winbush said of the increased attention with a straight face, “because that is going to help out the guys next to me.”
Both McKenzie and Neu have been really happy with the development of defensive linemen Reggie McGee, John Swisher, Chris Crumb, and Kevin Willis.
Crumb forced a fumble against the Illini, while other defenders like linebackers Jaylin Thomas and Damon Singleton had quarterback hurries at opportune times.
All of that depth and productivity leads to a better unit overall, according to Winbush.
“Our guys like Kevin Willis and Swisher will be stepping up,” Winbush said. “(Focus on me) will be creating plays for them. When they start creating more plays, it'll start opening more up for me.
“It will show teams that you really can't focus on just one person.”
McKenzie said that the depth along the Cardinal defensive line is also building with guys like redshirt freshman Frank Burton, who McKenzie said “has a chance to be a special player,” as well as redshirt sophomore Sean Hammonds.
The Cardinal defense isn't where McKenzie, Neu or the players want it to be as of yet, but it did show some positive signs despite the defeat.
“I've been really pleased with those guys,” McKenzie said of the line as a unit. “They are showing up and doing their job and when they get an opportunity to make plays, they do.”
For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.