“I dreamed of playing in games like this,” Clayton Coll said.
Since arriving at Ball State in 2019, the graduate student linebacker has played in plenty of big games. He’s played against three Power-5 opponents, in the 2020 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship and the 2021 Camellia Bowl.
No matter how many times he plays in these high-pressure situations, Coll never loses that childlike feeling.
“It’s that little kid, that college football fan that grew up watching every Saturday, watching nonstop with my brothers and my dad,” he said.
Ball State’s week one matchup against the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) Kentucky is no different. Coll said every August, players get to a point where they’re ready to face someone new after going against the same guys every day in practice for months.
It’s this factor that always excites the Cardinals the most about week one.
“When you start to shift the focus in practice and [start] truly preparing for Kentucky, you can just see the smiles, the attitudes [and] the intensity level,” head coach Mike Neu said.
While Coll, redshirt sophomore Brady Hunt and redshirt junior defensive lineman Tavion Woodard each missed practice time last week with injury, and the latter two even missed time early this week, all are expected to start against Kentucky.
Coll said his hamstring issue that placed him on the sidelines in camp shouldn’t affect him in week one, as he’s dealt with preseason injuries before and knows how to prepare coming off of them.
The eighth-year head coach consistently paid his respect to Kentucky head honcho Mark Stoops, who is entering his 10th season with the Wildcats. Stoops has a 66-59 career record, leading the blue and white to a 4-3 record in seven straight bowl game appearances.
Neu said Kentucky’s defense has been the biggest area of focus for Ball State in preparation for Saturday. After finishing 7-6 last season, Kentucky had the third (of 14) ranked defense in the SEC, even holding the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs to 16 points.
Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher is set to lead the charge against said defense, emerging from a three-way quarterback competition in training camp. While Neu said it became a “deadlock battle” between Hatcher and freshman Kaiden Semonza for the QB1 position, experience won out and Neu gave the redshirt senior the nod.
Neu said Semonza has put on 20 pounds since joining the program in January, and felt the freshman joining the Cardinals early in the offseason played to his advantage, as he had extended time to learn the playbook and get accustomed to his teammates and coaching staff. Semonza is listed on the week one roster at QB2, beating out redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly for the job.
Semonza’s arm talent, particularly in the areas of strength and accuracy, was what Neu said put the freshman over Kelly. While Kelly was competing for the starting position at the start of training camp, he finds himself at QB3, but Neu assured that Kelly will still be used in certain packages.
“There's three different types of skill sets [at QB],” Neu said.
Hatcher feels his greatest strength is his poise under pressure, something he’s learned across three collegiate programs before landing in Muncie. In fact, he’s been outspoken about feeling more at ease in the uncomfortable moments of the game than not.
“I feel like I play better when I'm in that place,” Hatcher said. “There will always be first game jitters or just those natural butterflies running out after strapping up for the first time but I think the quicker we can get rid of those the better.”
Hatcher will be the third different week one starter in a row for Ball State, but for the third season in a row, Ethan Crowe will be snapping the ball to the man under center. Despite the constant turnover at quarterback, the 2023 Outland Trophy watchlist honoree feels confident with Hatcher at the helm in Lexington.
“This guy has been through it all,” Crowe said. “If something hits the fan out there, everybody's cool, calm and collected.”
Neu said the Ball State coaching staff has tried to make practice and scrimmages as similar to true gameplay as possible, piping in crowd noise to help the Cardinals adapt to the SEC atmosphere. In that respect, he feels much of Ball State’s starting unit has enough experience playing in big games to focus when it counts.
Despite excelling on defense, Kentucky had the lowest-ranked offense in the conference last season, but Neu recognized the work the Wildcats put in through the transfer portal in the offseason to improve. Notably, the Wildcats lost quarterback Will Levis to the Tennessee Titans in the 2023 NFL draft, and he will be replaced by senior North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary.
Additionally, Kentucky landed senior running back Ray Davis from Vanderbilt, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Coll recognized the threat of Kentucky’s run game, and said the linebacker core and defensive line will take great pride in limiting it as much as possible.
Neu said the biggest area of improvement for the Cardinals this season is winning the turnover battle, noting in all of Ball State’s Mid-American Conference (MAC) losses last season, the Cardinals had the lower turnover margin. To achieve that goal against the Wildcats, Neu said Ball State will be operating under a “one play at a time” mentality.
“Our guys know that we can play with anybody, but we got to be really good at the details,” Neu said. “We've got to be really confident when we take the field, [and] we got to believe that we can line up and beat anybody.”
Coll’s motto for the defense?
“We’re gonna go take the ball away,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest addition for Kentucky was that of Liam Coen at offensive coordinator, who returns to Lexington after a one-year stint in the same position for the Los Angeles Rams. Coen previously served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator in 2021 and finished with the fifth-ranked offense in the SEC, averaging 32.3 points per game.
While much of Kentucky’s personnel on offense looks different, the same can be said for Ball State’s entire roster. However, redshirt senior linebacker Cole Pearce is a key returner for the Cardinal defense, and feels going up against college football’s best right out of the gate should be crucial for not only athletic development but establishing chemistry.
“It’s a great test to see how close our defense is, how on point we are chemistry-wise, [and] to see where we're at with a bunch of new faces and a whole different defense,” Pearce said.
Ball State is set to face off against the Wildcats at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky, at Noon Sept. 3, where the spread has the Cardinals as 26.5-point underdogs. With only approximately 204 miles separating the two institutions, many Cardinal fans are expected to make the trip down south to represent amongst the inevitable sea of blue and white.
“I think there's gonna be a decent amount of red in that stadium,” Crowe said.