DETROIT – When Ball State football coach Pete Lembo walked through the doors of the Fisher Football Complex on the campus in Muncie for the first time nearly three years ago, the Cardinal offense seemingly improved instantaneously.
But for two seasons, the Cardinal fans have been patiently awaiting that same result to be seen in their team's defensive unit. This fall, those fans just may get what they've been longing for.
“I like our football team,” Lembo said. “Whether you're talking about a (defensive tackle) Joel Cox or a (defensive tackle) Nate Ollie or a (linebacker) Ben Ingle or a (defensive end) Nick Miles or a (defensive end) John Newsome, or any of the other guys over there, they are fun guys to be around.”
They may be “fun guys,” but can they play? Numbers bear out over the past two seasons that they actually can.
Two years ago, the Cardinal defense was under a new defensive coordinator (Jay Bateman) for the fourth consecutive season – and it showed in the players' execution. Ball State ranked in the bottom half of the Mid-American Conference in virtually every defensive statistical category, including dead last in total defense, passing defense, opponents' converting of third downs, and red zone defense.
The Cardinals gave up at least 27 points in eight of their 12 games. However, over time the unit improved.
Last season, Ball State was markedly better in every defensive category aside from interceptions, and ranked as high as second in one of those areas (opponents' third down conversion).
“I'm not saying that we have all of the pieces to the puzzle (defensively),” Lembo explained, “I'm not saying we are the perfect football team, it's going to take a few more years for us to continue to build our depth and to keep bringing in better talent to get to where we want to go.”
Where this team wants to go is to Detroit, where the 2013 MAC Championship Game will be played, and recently Ollie sat high above Ford Field and talked about his group wanting to aid the explosive Cardinal offense in achieving that goal.
“The defense, this summer, we put in so much extra work,” Ollie said. “Our defense should see a huge improvement because of all of the extra work that we put in.”
Lembo felt the difference in the two units success early in his tenure was the football intellect of the players he was coaching offensively, which allowed the offense to pick up his system and terminology (thus execution) much quicker than the defensive side of the ball.
“We have been fortunate that there were some students of the game on offense,” Lembo said. “They really adapted to our system extremely well. I think our defense is now starting to benefit from having the same coaching staff for three years and being in the same system. That will start to pay some dividends here shortly.”
Ball State "D" is trending in positive direction
The Ball State defensive unit improved within the MAC statistical rankings last season from its first under Cardinal defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. Here are the rankings from each of the past two seasons:
Scoring defense - 11th (2011), 7th (2012)
Total defense - 13th, 9th
Rush defense - 12th, 8th
Pass defense - 13th, 6th
Pass defense efficiency - 13th, 8th
Interceptions - 7th, 11th
Sacks - 10th, 5th
Opponents' 3rd down conversion - 13th, 2nd
Red Zone defense - 12th, 5th
Cardinal faces going places
Here is a look at the defensive depth chart entering training camp, which opens Tuesday.
DE - Jonathan Newsome (backed-up by Michael Ayres)
DE - Nick Miles (Osa Igbinosun)
DT - Nate Ollie (Darnell Smith)
NG - Joel Cox (Keenan Noel)
OLB - Julian Boyd (Stephan Martin)
OLB - Chris Calloway (Quintin Cooper or Kenneth Lee)
MLB - Ben Ingle (Trent Toothman)
CB - Eric Patterson (Tyree Holder or Darius Conaway)
CB - Jeffrey Garrett (Chris Pauling)
S - J.C. Wade (Aaron Taylor or Dae'Shaun Hurley)
S - Brian Jones (Martez Hester or Joseph Fazio)