Ball State (0-1) doesn’t have much tape on Alabama-Birmingham (1-0), but it might have an ace up its sleeve anyway.
Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Scheumann Stadium is the Blazers’ first against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since November 29, 2014. Cardinals senior defensive lineman John Swisher, however, knows better than to think that means UAB won’t have any experienced players.
After all, he played with six current Blazers at Iowa Western Community College.
“I’m not close with that many of them, but I played with all of them,” Swisher said. “One of them on the d-line and I played across from [redshirt junior guard] Malique Johnson all spring [at Iowa Western]. It’ll be interesting going back-and-forth with those guys.”
In all, 71 of the 124 players listed on UAB’s rosters started their college football careers at different schools. By comparison, only nine of Ball State’s 102 players started their careers elsewhere.
It’s all part of the design Blazers head coach Bill Clark developed after studying NCAA history.
In 1989, Southern Methodist University returned from the infamous “Death Penalty,” which shut down its football program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. The Mustangs went winless in Southwest Conference play that season, with their worst loss coming in as a 95-21 blowout against the Houston Cougars.
No, that’s not a typo, Houston really did . Then-Cougars quarterback Andre Ware set an NCAA record with 517 passing yards in the first half alone, while the team’s 1,021 yards set another NCAA record.
But, trivia aside, 17 of SMU’s 22 starters in that Houston game were freshmen, which is why Clark focused on recruiting community college players who could enroll at UAB as upperclassmen.
"I know [SMU] went out there with a bunch of young guys and got killed," Clark . "To me, you're not gonna run freshmen out there with 20 or 21 year olds. ... I knew we [were] going to struggle recruiting high school kids just by the fact you shut your program down. So we needed to find guys that needed us like we needed them.”
Even though the Blazers didn’t play any games last year, most of their players were already on campus. They were still practicing, going to class and adjusting to a four-year university.
Ball State junior offensive lineman Kadin Booker took a similar path, redshirting his first year in Muncie after playing as a freshman at Monroe College in New York. He says the biggest difference between community college and four-year universities is the structure.
“You can’t be late to anything,” Booker said. “You can’t really slack off. And the competition, too, at practice every day. You’re going against a good player every day.”
Both Booker and Swisher, though, say the sheer number of transfer players at UAB could make their transition easier, if only because everybody’s in the same boat.
“That probably brought them together a little bit,” Swisher said. “Having nine guys transferred in, or one or two even at the same time, that’s a lot different than having 30, or six teammates that have played with each other like those guys have. I don’t think it's set them back too much.”
There could be a downside to having so many transfers, said redshirt junior defensive back Josh Miller. As a freshman he played for Marian University-Indianapolis, an NAIA school, and he said the biggest challenge that came with transferring to Ball State was “making friends and just being part of the team.”
“It probably would’ve been easier [with more transfers] but it kinda would’ve also made you be in a clique because you’d’ve been like, ‘Oh, we’re the new guys, we’re going to hang together,’” Miller said. “So it probably would’ve been easier, but it would’ve been harder at the same time.”
Either way, this weekend’s home opener will be an eye opener. The Blazers beat FCS Alabama A&M 38-7 last week, but haven’t played an FBS team since 2014. Even Swisher says it’s unclear just how good UAB is, if only because he’s two seasons removed from playing with his six Iowa Western teammates.
“The thing is a lot of those guys probably have changed a lot,” Swisher said. “I know I have, certainly, since I got here. I went against those guys a lot. But when I went against [redshirt junior] Chris Schleuger, he was a tackle, he was a really good one. Now he’s a guard, now he’s moved inside and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better. Those guys have gotten a lot better.”
Ball State and UAB kick off at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 9 at Scheumann Stadium.