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Marcelino Ball’s return gives Hoosiers’ defense big boost

April 15, 2018

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Marcelino Ball is running around Indiana’s football field, making play after play this spring.

It feels good to the redshirt sophomore. It looks natural to his coaches. Most of all, it’s a whole lot better than having Ball watch from the side as he was forced to do most of last fall.

Following a phenomenal freshman year, Ball embarked on what most expected to be a sensational sophomore season. Instead, he injured his left knee in the Hoosiers’ third game and wound up taking a medical redshirt as he tried to work his way back.

It appears he’s finally made it.

“I tried to jump right into practice and it all just instantly came back,” Ball said before Saturday’s annual Cream-and-Crimson spring game. “It felt good.”

The 6-foot, 218-pound husky — a combination of safety and linebacker — already seems to be back to his old form.

Trainers cleared Ball for the start of workouts on March 3. Since then, the Georgia native has been subjected to no limitations and has suffered no setbacks.

That’s good news for a defense searching for experienced playmakers.

Seven senior starters from last season’s unit, ranked No. 27 in the nation, are gone. Some longtime cornerstones, such as linebacker Tegray Scales and cornerback Rashard Fant, are hoping to hear their name called during this month’s NFL draft.

A few familiar faces, such as defensive lineman Jacob Robinson and defensive backs Jonathan Crawford and Andre Brown Jr., are still around. But what they really need is a healthy Ball to come back strong, make big plays and lead with his heart.

“I think what makes him special is the passion and love he has for the game,” assistant defensive coordinator Mark Hagen said. “You look at a lot of kids growing up in today’s society, and there are a lot of bells and whistles and a lot of things to do that didn’t exist when you or I were growing up. But he just loves to play football.”

It shows.

As a true freshman in 2016, Ball led all Big Ten freshmen with 75 tackles and his 60 solo stops were third nationally among freshmen.

Add two interceptions, eight pass breakups, one fumble recovery and it’s clear why he landed on the Big Ten’s all-freshmen team, received all-conference honorable mention and was chosen Indiana’s defensive newcomer of the year.

Last season’s start was equally strong.

Ball recorded 20 tackles and 13 solos in the Hoosiers’ first three games, putting him on pace to finish with 80 and 52. Then he got hurt and couldn’t help the Hoosiers close out games.

They lost in overtime to Michigan. They gave up the final 14 points in an eight-point loss at Michigan State. They took a five-point lead into the fourth quarter at Maryland and wound up losing 42-39. Finally, the Hoosiers allowed rival Purdue to run for 272 yards in a 31-24 victory that eliminated Indiana from bowl contention.

“It was hard. I wanted to come back,” Ball said. “But I felt like I wasn’t fast and even if I did come back, I thought I would be hurting my team more than I would be helping it.”

Today, those fears no longer exist.

Ball knows he’s playing fast as do his coaches, even on a day the defense didn’t finish as strong as head coach Tom Allen wanted.

Still, it’s a confidence-builder for Ball.

And for the Hoosiers, its’ an encouraging sign that perhaps their best defensive player will return better than ever for the Sept. 1 season opener at Florida International.

“I think he’s back from a playmaker standpoint,” Hagen said. “He’s probably bigger and stronger than he’s ever been. He’s got a new position coach because he’ll be meeting with the linebackers. But what you’re seeing is the old ’Lino.”

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