Battered offensive line turns to coach's NFL experience ahead of home opener
Ball State’s offensive line is no stranger to football’s inevitable injuries.
The Cardinals lost redshirt senior Pat Maloney to injury before the season even started, and redshirt junior Alex Joss went down in the . Both Maloney and Joss started all 12 of Ball State’s games last season, so the team will have to turn to younger players in the Saturday’s home opener against Alabama-Birmingham.
“The future for Joss, looks like he’ll be out this week,” head coach Mike Neu said after Wednesday’s practice.
Offensive line coach Kyle DeVan prepared for this. Throughout spring practice and preseason training, he shifted the left-side linemen to the right side, moved the guards out to tackle and the tackles into guard.
“Maybe there’s a day-or-two injury in training camp or spring ball,” DeVan said. “Well, you don’t want to just move the next guy, you want to have an ever-evolving rotation.”
So when Joss left the game against Illinois, redshirt sophomore backup left guard Zac Ricketts crossed over to the right side.
It’s a strategy DeVan picked up in his five years as an NFL player, which included a two-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-10. NFL rosters are capped at 53 players, so to save space teams rely on backups who can play multiple positions. Instead of keeping a replacement for all five linemen, teams will have two or three backup linemen who can play multiple positions and shift the line around when needed, allowing teams to sign an extra receiver or defensive back.
Redshirt senior Vinnie Palazeti, for example, is both the Cardinals’ starting left guard and the primary backup for the left and right tackles.
“[In the NFL] you bring your front five, a swing guard and a swing tackle — and the swing guard can play all three inside,” Palazeti said. “That’s basically what [DeVan] preached to us. We need the depth where I’m the backup to both tackles. I can play both those positions if need be, and someone else is better suited to back up both guards. So just having that availability is much better of having a restricted form of you’re just a right guard or just a right tackle.”
Moving starters like Palazeti to different positions in practice also opens up opportunities for the backups and younger players to gain experience.
“What people don’t realize is how many reps the younger guys get during preseason camp,” Palazeti said. “A lot of times, they have almost as many reps as the older guys have, so the difference between them is not so great. If they’ve been in the program a while, they just haven’t had the time on the field but really they almost have as many reps as I have.”
How well the Cardinals offensive line adjusts will play a major role against the Blazers. Last week, UAB opened its season with a 38-7 win over Alabama A&M in its first game since 2014.
“They looked like a team when they took the field last week that they were tired of going against each other,” Neu said. “Tired of practicing for a year, they wanted to play somebody else. The first thing that jumped out to me on tape was how fast they play and how physical they were for that first game against Alabama A&M.”
The Blazers defense allowed just 45 yards on 33 carries, recorded three sacks and allowed a first down on just one of 14 third-down attempts.
“I don’t really look at the corners, but the D-line I think is a very good group and creates challenges especially with the different fronts, different alignments,” DeVan said. “We’re gonna have to be ready to go mentally and physically.”
“It’s interesting — the media, outside sources they talk about how it’s a startup program, which essentially it is,” DeVan said. “But you look at the roster and there’s a ton of juniors and seniors, more than I really anticipated. So you know they’re gonna have a veteran group, especially guys up front. They have big athletic dudes.”
Neu says he expects UAB’s offense to have a similar look as Illinois’ — a run-heavy option offense centered around a mobile quarterback.
The Blazers ran for 259 yards in their season opener, but no individual player topped 80 yards. Redshirt freshman running back Carlos Stephens totaled 76 yards on 15 carries, and redshirt junior James Noble III added another 74 yards on 13 carries.
UAB redshirt junior quarterback A.J. Erdely added another 27 yards on the ground and scored a rushing touchdown, while also passing for 152 yards and two more touchdowns.
“We prepare for that pretty much every week now, it seems like, in college football, where you’ve got a quarterback who can both run it and throw it,” Neu said.
Ball State is UAB’s first Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since the rebirth of its program, so there isn’t much tape on the Blazers — just the spring game and the opener against a Football Championship Subdivision team.
“It’s kind of hard to get a good look at them, but at the same time we’ve got to come to practice like we’re playing Alabama,” redshirt junior cornerback Josh Miller said.
The Cardinals’ home opener against UAB kicks off 3 p.m. Saturday at Scheumann Stadium.