Ball learning to harness his energy, enthusiasm

The expression on Marcelino Ball’s face was somewhat gloomy Wednesday. His hands were clenched around the straps of his backpack, tugging at them as he pined for the one thing that’s eluded him at fall camp.

“I ain’t gonna lie,” Ball said, “I haven’t tackled someone in a full five days. So, I’m a little edgy right now.”

Just admitting that elicited a smile from Indiana’s 6-foot, 223-pound juggernaut, who lives for moments where his extraordinary combo of strength and speed smashes through a ballcarrier with powerful momentum.

The opener with Ball State is a little over a week away. Soon, he will have his relief. But camp, Ball said, has been a “little dry.” He heard a question about blitzing from his hybrid linebacker/safety position, and it’s as if a juicy steak popped into his head.

“The main moment in a game is the ballcarrier and the person about to make a tackle. That’s just my moment,” Ball said. “And I might be saying this because I haven’t tackled in so long. That’s something I wish for right now. Right now, I want a tackle.”

“I want a nice tackle,” Ball continued, begging the universe like a kid nagging his mom for a toy at the store. “I’m so angry right now.”

This is the ‘Lino the Hoosiers have come to love: passionate, expressive, and just ready for contact. If he goes a few days without a hit — either runs are going the other way, or passes aren’t flying into his zone — it bothers him.

He’s not sure if he’s coping well, but IU’s coaches will point to the energetic and emotional elements of the redshirt junior’s personality and say there’s been a maturation. Especially with how he handles himself on a football field.

Safeties coach Kasey Teegardin, who was a graduate assistant when Ball arrived as a freshman, remembers him as “a handful.”

“But a good handful,” Teegardin said. “You have seen him now really develop his game and maturity to where he admits when he’s wrong. That’s a good step in the right direction, especially for young guys. That can be hard.

“He’ll be the first one to say ‘My bad. That won’t happen again.’ In the past, we’d be battling him on that. That’s where he’s matured as a man.”

The coaching staff has worked to hold Ball accountable, only because they know how much damage he can inflict on an offense if he’s in the right place at the right time. He posted 7.5 tackles for loss in 2018, tops on the team.

Now that he’s an upperclassman, his responsibilities extend outside of the plays he makes on the field. He has taken to mentoring one of the secondary’s brightest prospects, freshman Tiawan Mullen, showing him the right and wrong way to do things. It could be as small as accepting responsibility for an on-field mistake, or something even smaller, like silencing your phone during meetings.

“It’s big brother, little brother stuff,” Ball said. “Big brother doing bad, little brother is going to follow. I know because I’m a little brother.”

Ball’s physical gifts aren’t a mistake of nature. From the time he was 6 or 7 years old, he wanted to work out with brothers more than twice his age, Marcus, Reggie Jr., and Raeshon.

All three played college football: Marcus at Memphis (2009-10), Reggie Jr. at Georgia Tech (2003-2006), and Raeshon at UT-Chattanooga (‘06-08). Reggie Jr. and Marcus briefly played in the NFL.

In February, Marcelino got the NFL shield tattooed on his right shoulder because he’s still aiming for heights his brothers reached. He’s switched from No. 42 to No. 9 to honor another brother, of sorts, former teammate Jonathan Crawford.

The Hoosiers’ safety was Ball’s rock whenever he got down.

“Last year, Iowa, I played my worst game ever,” Ball said. “He’s the only reason I kept going out on that field. That was his senior year, I wanted him to get drafted, wanted him to do his thing.

“We went 5-7. That was a fail. But that’s the first time I played for somebody else. I played for him.”

In the spring, they kept working. Ball would say “Always more.” Crawford answered, “Never less.” To this day, Ball will text those two words to Crawford, who had stints with the Tennessee Titans in training camp.

Ball is now one of the older members of an IU linebacking and safety corps filled with freshmen and sophomores. Senior safety Khalil Bryant, in defensive coordinator Kane Wommack’s words, is a “godfather” type, the one everyone looks to for steady, veteran leadership. They are looking to Ball, as well, just in a different way.

“His energy on the field is infectious,” Teegardin said. “When he makes a play and lets it loose, you can see everybody’s personality around him change. They are chasing after him. He’s so fast, running around, trying to elude guys. They are trying to chase him to celebrate. It’s good stuff.”

IU’s coaches are trying to figure out all the ways to get Ball into the action, causing a stir. Not only are they moving him around defensively, but Ball has been back fielding punts and kicks as a potential option in the return game.

Wommack’s eyes lit up when he was asked about the “fun” he could have drawing up packages for Ball and husky-turned-linebacker Cam Jones when they are on the field together. He wasn’t overly specific, but Ball should be all over the place.

“He is so powerful, so fast,” Wommack said. “Finding those multiple roles where he’s going to be placed on the field, based off the situation, is going to be really important.

“He’s taken ownership of that. He’s matured a great deal. He’s a passionate energy player, you know what I mean? Sometimes those passionate energy players have to be reined in to some degree.”

In that endeavor, Ball is trying. He joked that he was meditating to deal with the lack of contact at practices right now. (He’s not.)

He’s just dealing with it, as best he can. After letting out an “ugh,” he collected himself.

“Everything is well,” Ball said, “but I would just like a ballcarrier to run a power my way. That’s my wish.”

6 comments

  1. At the moment sound like an injury free training camp (a very very good thing)….but also sound like a very controlled training camp, looking to avoid some physical contact and some injuries. Hopefully the players are ready to go.

    1. I think about 4-5 seasons ago lots of programs started scaling back the # of full contact practices. I’m with you in thinking there should be a couple additional to get more sharpness and rythm. But no argument it has lowered injuries both big and small.

    2. There’s another concern out there too, especially on the running backs. There are a limited number of hits which can be taken in a lifetime, and a lot of sports med folks are looking at this the same way one would look at a pitch count for pitchers. Too many hits can add up to a shortened career depending on how far it goes.

  2. Ball has been one of my favorite Hoosiers since he came on campus. The extra work he put in when others weren’t around says a lot about how much he cares about excelling. There are several Hoosier players that I want to see moved around to create havoc for offenses.

    It is good to be moving into game week so we can see what the team really looks like. So many differences for this year to see how they work out. It would be great to see the team go 3-0 to open the season although it isn’t likely to happen.

    1. Unlike the NFL that gets 4 warm up games, every game counts in college. The first two games should allow for IU to work out the kinks before we face OSU.

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