Veteran safety expects Ball State secondary to be better this season
Martez Hester hasn't forgotten the feeling of walking off the field after last year's game against Georgia State.
Ball State gave up 412 passing yards — 246 in the first half — on its way to a 31-19 home loss. The secondary was better in the second half, but it couldn't hold up long enough to complete a comeback.
"It was definitely a disappointing loss because we go into every game expecting to win," Hester said. "It was also a close game. But every loss hurts."
Ball State - 2015 pass defense
Completions - 289
Attempts - 408
Completion percentage - 70.8 (last in Division I)
Yards - 3,510
Yards per game - 292.5
Touchdowns - 26
Interceptions - 7
This year, Hester is tasked with leading a new-look secondary that has nowhere to go but up after last season. The difference? The fifth-year senior and team captain is looking to his teammates for motivation.
"We're not looking for a specific coach or somebody to inspire us," said Hester, who finished third on the team with 78 tackles last season. "We're generating it through the players, so it comes natural. No matter what is going on outside, if you can get that energy and enthusiasm through yourself, you should be all right."
The loss to upstart Georgia State, which earned a bid to a bowl game for the first time in program history last season, was a microcosm of a disappointing season for the Ball State secondary.
Ball State ranked in the bottom 10 of the country in passing yards per game allowed and yards per attempt, while finishing dead last in Division I in opponent completion percentage (70.8).
But the arrival of first-year defensive coordinator Tim Daoust was like a breath of fresh air for Hester and the rest of the Cardinals' secondary. Daoust isn't interested in last year. All he sees is a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder and a willingness to understand his aggressive system.
"Fast, physical, smart. I said it the first day I was here. I hit it at the end of spring and at fall camp. I just talked to the kids about those same three words right there," Daoust said. "We're going to make mistakes. But let's go play fast, be physical, and, as we go, be smarter and smarter about how we play this football game."
The depth chart in the Cardinals' defensive backfield has shuffled since the spring. Hester, who is the team's starting strong safety heading into week one, is the only member of the secondary that has remained atop the depth chart since Spring Practice.
Fellow senior Darius Conaway was one of the starting cornerbacks coming out of Spring Camp, but isn't listed anywhere on the current depth chart. Head coach Mike Neu said Conaway has been suspended indefinitely, but wouldn't disclose any more information, citing university policy.
Hester will be joined in the secondary by starting corners Tyree Holder and Marc Walton and free safety Corey Hall.
"I got to play last year as a true freshman, so I bring a little more experience this year," Walton said. "I can bring smarts and consistency, play in and play out."
Ball State's secondary will get its first test on Sept. 2 in the season opener at Georgia State. The Panthers lost quarterback Nick Arbuckle to graduation, who threw for 4,368 yards and 28 touchdowns on his way to being named Sun Belt Player of the Year last season.
Georgia State coach Trent Miles said on a conference call Monday they're still determining who will take Arbuckle's spot.
Whoever it is will have plenty of veteran weapons at his disposal at the skill positions.
"They have got great skill," Daoust said. "That jumps out at you right away, the numbers they put up in the passing game. Well-coached, and the kids understand what they're doing. Very impressive group."
As the oldest member of the Cardinals' secondary, Hester is the leader.
The Kennesaw, Georgia, native knows he's got to have everyone on their toes if he wants to avoid a repeat of last year in front of his hometown crowd this weekend.
"It's definitely special to me," he said. "Just make sure everybody is ready to play so we can go out there and get a win. It's big for me."