Zack Ryan, a linebacker for the Cardinals, tackles Eastern Kentucky’s quarterback James Smith Jr. during the home opener game against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 17 in Scheumann Stadium. Ball State won 41-14. Grace Ramey // DN
Zack Ryan: Ball State's leader by example on defense
When Sean Wiggins got to Ball State four years ago, he didn't know Zack Ryan. But it didn't take him long to figure out that he wanted to be just like Ryan.
It's easy to see why. Ryan, now a fifth-year senior for the Cardinals, has started every year of his career in the middle linebacker position. He leads the team in tackles this year with 26 tackles through three games, along with 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Ryan isn't a yeller or screamer. He's a worker. And his leadership by example is part of what has developed players like Wiggins into what they are today.
Zack Ryan — 2016 stats (3 games)
Games started — 3
*Solo tackles — 16
*Assists — 10
*Total tackles — 26
Tackles for loss-Yards — 3.5-11
Sacks — 1
"I learned to play, [and not to] talk too much," Wiggins said. "Don't worry about the wrong stuff, just go out there and play football. That's what [Ryan has] done since he's been here, and that's why he's been starting for four years."
This year is the first of Ryan's career that started with a serious change. Head coach Mike Neu came in and brought a new staff — mostly on the defensive side — with him.
With any new coaching staff, Ryan said, you have to adjust to fit in with their style. But after meeting with Neu, defensive coordinator Tim Daoust and linebackers coach Johnny Curtis, he knew the transition wouldn't be too difficult.
"I'm a really coachable player. I just listen to what the coaches say," Ryan said. "And that's how they trust you, that's how they put you on the field. So I'm happy with our coaches, and I think when they came here, they were really happy with me, too."
He's not wrong. Curtis could tell from the first time they met that the game was important to him.
"[Ryan] is a respectful guy," Curtis said. "He looks you in the eyes, and he wants to learn. That's half the battle — guys that want to be coaches and learn how to do something a little bit better perfect their craft. By no means is he a polished linebacker, but I can tell you this, he works really hard at it."
Of all the positive qualities Ryan possesses — speed, strength and a nose for the football — he is undersized for a linebacker at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds.
The intangibles are the reason why Curtis said pound for pound, Ryan is probably as good as any linebacker in the country. Ryan makes a lot of the Cardinals' play calls and makes it a point to help out the less-experienced players when he comes out of the game.
"He's a typical 'prove yourself every day' kind of guy," Curtis said. "So when you say the heart and soul of the defense, we love him out there on the field. But even if he's not, he gives the young guys the ability to succeed."
Ball State has established more of a rotation on defense this year, something that has helped Ryan stay fresh at all times. He's averaging just over eight tackles per game in a 2-1 start.
The new scheme has allowed Ryan to succeed because he can play down-hill more often, Wiggins said.
Ryan is on pace for 104 total tackles this season, which would be a career high. He's had seasons of 92, 91 and 67 over the past three years.
"I don't really care how many tackles I have because that wouldn't happen without the other players on the defense doing their job," Ryan said. "It comes down to watching film, knowing what your job is and executing your assignments."
Ryan's preparation in meetings and the weight room, along with his work in the classroom, are a big part of what make him so successful.
"The game is important to him," Neu said. "Because of his work in the weight room, he was recognized as a two-time 'Iron Cardinal' winner, which isn't easy to do. I think what you see is that carries over to the field for a guy like Zack. ... He just goes about his business, produces week in and week out and practices that same way."
Four years later, it just feels normal for Wiggins to line up next to Ryan.
They know each other well by now. Wiggins said Ryan is actually one of the funniest and weirdest kids on the team if you get to know him.
He also knows that Ryan is going to put in the work every day, just like he's done for his whole career.
"[Ryan] isn't a big talker, and everybody knows that," Wiggins said. "But nobody questions his work ethic and talent. You don't have to worry about him slacking off at all. He just leads by example."