There was no role to be played on the field for Marcelino Ball last season, because a torn ACL took that away from Indiana’s freakishly explosive defender.
But off the field, Ball could still have an impact. He specifically recalled finding IU running back Stevie Scott after one less-than-stellar game in 2020.
“I’m like, hey, it could be worse, and I’m smiling,” Ball said. “He’s down. He’s like ‘Dang, man,’ and I’m like ‘It could be worse, buddy.’”
Ball has seen many ups and downs in his soon-to-be six-year career at IU. He was in the football building for seasons where the lights turned off in December, as the Hoosiers again fell short of bowl eligibility. He has now gone through two season-ending injuries, and this last one gave him a front-row seat to an extraordinary success story, both a blessing to watch but also a curse to be sidelined from.
But with four words — “It could be worse” — Ball had a message that could ease the suffering of a teammate, whenever it was needed. It also seems, as Ball works his way back for the 2021 season, that the 6-foot, 214-pound husky realizes those four words apply to himself, as well.
For some people, a season-ending injury in their fifth collegiate season is the end. They get hurt, and it’s over. In Ball’s case, however, his second season-ender came during a year that didn’t count toward eligibility, in the eyes of the NCAA. Every fall athlete was getting an extra year, and Ball could play on.
Now he’s about to be an X-factor for IU, a player who can supercharge a defense already deep with returning talent.
“It seems like Marcelino has been here as long as I have,” said cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby, who is heading into his 11th season and is the longest-tenured coach on IU’s staff. “To have his experience out there, and being able to coach the young guys up, he’s an old vet.”
Ball isn’t quite back to practicing with the Hoosiers. When they are going through drills, Ball is with a smaller group of players working their way back from injury, including walk-on tight end Sam Daugstrup and offensive lineman Kahlil Benson. Those two are freshmen.
While Ball has been with the Hoosiers since Daugstrup and Benson were freshmen in high school, he doesn’t feel like an “old head,” per se. Ball is young for his grade and doesn’t turn 22 until later this month. He’s not that old. He’s just seen a lot.
Ball had to tell himself that when he was going into the spring before his senior year, when he was still 19.
“That stuff really gets in your head, you start moving like an old man,” Ball said. “In 2020, I flipped the switch as far as, like, ‘I’m 21 years old,’ … I’m still young. As far as my experience, I’ve been here a while. But I don’t see myself as an old head. I’ve just been here. I’ve experienced it all. I know, metaphorically speaking, what it feels like when the lights are off, when we don’t have a bowl game.
“That isn’t the worst I’ve ever experienced, but 5-7 is still pretty terrible. … As far as being here so long, that doesn’t really faze me. Everybody’s time gon’ come. I’m making the days count.”
There is an excitement for Ball to rejoin the Hoosiers in a fuller capacity, when that time comes. Before his injury last fall, Ball had reportedly hit another gear on the field. His dual-threat ability both in the blitz game and back in coverage would have made him a unique weapon for then-defensive coordinator Kane Wommack to toy with.
That didn’t happen, but the Hoosiers still went out and forced more interceptions, 17, than any team in the country. Despite being out, Ball played his role as a team captain. He was on the sideline for IU’s upset win over then-No. 8 Penn State, despite having his surgery that day. He recorded the game via Instagram Live.
A few more games into the schedule, though, Ball did find himself getting anxious. He googled the fastest possible timetable for a return from an ACL injury.
“It was good seeing them ball out. I didn’t have any negative thoughts,” Ball said. “It was more so ‘Shoot, can I get out there and play?’ Just put me in a little zone. I can’t do man-to-man, I probably can’t blitz right now. But put me in a little Cover 3, Cover 4, I could go out there right now.”
Ball had to sit and watch. When teammates were down, he tried to pick them up with his four words, “It could be worse.” He knows it could have been worse for him.
“As much as it was sad, like, man, (not) being able to be a part of that 2020 team … it made me think how, last year, for a potential fifth-year, anywhere in the country … they didn’t have no sixth-year opportunity … that doesn’t happen. It’s a blessing in disguise, I guess, and I appreciate it.
“So having that opportunity to come back, or having that opportunity in my back pocket, it was great to have, because I know not many people would have had that or even gone forward.”
Sure, Ball’s surroundings have changed. The only other player on the Hoosiers’ roster that was around for the 2016 season is offensive guard Mackenzie Nworah, who also took advantage of an opportunity to return. Plus, Ball is about to play for his third defensive coordinator. It was now-head coach Tom Allen’s unit in 2016, followed by Wommack, now Charlton Warren.
But some things don’t change, especially for IU’s defense. Ball knows what’s required. He’s been around.
“Edge, tackling, takeaways, that’s what we live by, that’s what we’re going to die by,” Ball said. “No matter what scheme we got, no matter how many guys blitz through the ‘A’ gap, no matter what zone we got in the backfield — if we don’t have that, it’s lost.”