While Ball State didn’t have the successful year many around the program hoped for in 2022, running back Carson Steele did. Finishing the year with 1556 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, Steele earned All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) First Team honors and was perhaps the brightest light in a 5-7 season.
That light was soon shut out when the standout running back entered the transfer portal following the season’s conclusion and chose the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as his new destination. Through three games in 2023, Steele has 160 rushing yards and a touchdown for the 3-0 Bruins.
However, Ball State is just as comfortable with Steele’s replacement, redshirt junior Marquez Cooper. The Kent State transfer said the Cardinals reached out within the first hour of his availability in the transfer portal.
While he only combined for 41 yards in the first two contests of the season, the Cardinals’ coaching staff remained confident in Cooper, especially given the stiff Southeastern Conference (SEC) competition.
“He's a young man that cares,” Colin Johnson said. “He's gonna work his tail off, [and] he's gonna be prepared come Saturdays, and for that, I'm fortunate, because it's hard to find guys like that.”
Johnson, Ball State’s running game coordinator and offensive line coach, said it’s normally difficult to tell what kind of person is behind the player when bringing in transfers from other programs, but said Cooper has been positive and bought-in since day one.
“I'm able to tell them exactly why I made this cut or why I made that cut,” Cooper said about the running back coaches. “They hold me accountable.”
Not only did Cooper struggle against Georgia and Kentucky, but the Cardinals only rushed for a combined 149 yards in the first two games as a whole. Johnson’s message to the Cardinal running backs heading into their matchup against Indiana State?
“We’re not playing in the SEC anymore.”
The Ball State running game finally broke through, and Cooper’s hard work and buy-in paid off with a 177-yard, one touchdown performance in the Cardinals’ 45-7 victory. Johnson said not only is Marquez shifty, quick and skilled on the field, but his biggest attribute is his mind for the game.
“When you get a guy like that the ball and he understands what the defense is doing and what we're trying to accomplish, it makes for good plays,” Johnson said. “He’s a special [running] back.”
While Cooper rushed for the second most yards of his collegiate career, he wasn’t the only contributor on the ground for Ball State. From under center, redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly picked up 40 yards while freshman Kadin Semonza only gained 12. Along with Cooper at running back, redshirt sophomore Rico Barfield tacked on 48 yards and a touchdown, and fellow redshirt sophomore Charlie Spegal also found the end zone with 17 yards.
Barfield’s performance was a breakout one, as he also added 16 receiving yards and a touchdown. His touchdowns were the first scores of his collegiate career and his combined 64 yards a career-high.
The St. Louis native said he first started playing football when he was six years old, but remembers watching his older brother’s practices when he was just three. He stood on the sidelines wearing his brother’s shoulder pads, waiting to be old enough to go out and compete like him.
Barfield said following redshirt sophomore Vaughn Pemberton’s injury in week one, he’s embraced Ball State’s “Next Man Up” motto. Yet he’s picked up a different mindset from Cooper.
“Dog mentality,” Barfield said. “I try to take that from him. [I’ll say], ‘you the little dog, let me be the big dog.’”
Johnson said during the Cardinals’ 288 rushing yard performance against Indiana State, head coach Mike Neu told him in his headset that they were ‘gashing’ the Sycamores and to keep running the ball. In that moment, Johnson thought back to 2019, his first year as an assistant at Ball State.
He thought about how dominant the rushing game and offensive line was then, leading to former Atlanta Falcons running back Caleb Huntley rushing for more than 1200 yards on the season and helping Ball State to more than 2600 in total. The Cardinals attack against Indiana State reminded him of that squad.
“I expect my guys to shine all the time, but certainly in situations like that, that's where we got to leave our mark in the game plan,” Johnson said.
Cooper is confident in his talent, but knows the key to success as a running back comes down to a capable offensive line. The Kent State transfer said he and the offensive line have grown in chemistry throughout the first two games of the season, and began to realize their potential together against Indiana State.
As a former Ball State offensive lineman himself, Johnson knows how important a reliable rushing offense is in a program like the Cardinals’. He also knows what it takes to achieve that consistency.
“It’s a mental game,” Johnson said. “We have to be able to control ourselves when anxiety hits, or when we get super excited because we're up big. We can't let our emotions play the game for us.”
Despite the early struggles, Neu remained confident the Cardinals’ run game would kick into high gear sooner rather than later. In fact, he said his offense depended on it.
“That's something that's got to be front and center for us,” Neu said. “I don't care what level of football you play, you got to establish a run [game]. That sets up everything else.”
Ball State looks to continue this momentum moving forward, as Georgia Southern (2-1) comes to Muncie Sept. 23 at 2 p.m.