Not-really-oldhead Marcelino Ball gearing up for one last run

There was never a time last season when Marcelino Ball didn’t feel sincere joy for his teammates. He caught every single game, whether he was there to see it in person or he caught it on TV or radio, even when he was recovering from surgery to repair his ACL.

“Especially the Penn State game,” he said. “I recorded the whole thing on Instagram live. That was the day of my surgery and I just got home and it was the same day. It was good to see them ball out.”

But there was also never a time he didn’t desperately want to be out there with them as they recorded six Big Ten wins for the first time since 1987, beat Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin in the same year for the first time in history and finished the season ranked in the top 15 for the first time since 1967. By the Michigan State game on Nov. 14, just three weeks after his surgery, he was already Googling what the shortest recovery time is for an ACL tear.

“I didn’t have no negative thoughts, it was just, ‘Shoot, can I go up there and play?'” Ball said. “‘Just put me in a little zone. I can’t do man-to-man. I probably can’t blitz right now. But you put me in a little Cover 3 or Cover 4, I can go out there right now, two, three months out.'”

Of course, the Hoosiers never considered actually giving him that opportunity and now he’ll have a chance to recover and get one more shot at a fully healthy college season in his sixth year on campus. He might have been able to get a sixth year under normal circumstances anyway because he was granted a medical redshirt in 2017 when he suffered another season-ending injury, but because of the NCAA’s decision to not count the 2020 season against any player’s eligibility because of COVID-19, Ball gets an extra year without having to petition for one.

Six years, of course, is a long time to be in college. Ball got to Indiana in 2016 when Kevin Wilson was still the head coach and Tom Allen had just been hired as defensive coordinator.  He’s seen it all — two seasons in which the Hoosiers barely missed a bowl game, one season in which they barely made it, and two of the best seasons in Indiana’s last 30 seasons.

“It seems like Marcelino has been here as long as I have,” said cornerbacks coach and assistant head coach Brandon Shelby, who is heading into his 11th season on staff and is the only member of the coaching staff other than Allen for whom that is not actually true.

But the thing is, Ball isn’t that old. He arrived at Indiana as a 17-year-old and didn’t turn 18 until after his freshman season — his birthdate is March 23, 1999 — and he won’t turn 23 until later this month. So as long as he’s been in Bloomington, he doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s aged out of IU. He’s got his bachelor’s degree in May, but he’s younger than some people who don’t have one.

So he’s simply refusing to act like the super-duper senior he will be.

“Fourth-year or fifth-year, that’s pretty much an oldhead,” Ball said. “You walk around here like, ‘Man, I’m old.’ And that stuff really gets in your head. You start moving around like an old man. But going into last year, I flipped a switch in my head. I was only 21 heading into my fifth year. Typically, fifth-year guys are 23, 24. I changed my perspective of me being an oldhead. I’m still young. I’ve been here a while, but I don’t really see myself as an oldhead. I’ve just been here and that’s cool. Metaphorically speaking, I know what it’s like when the lights are off. When you don’t have a bowl game and we go 5-7.”

And he wants to play one more season with the lights on and make an impact on that happening. His position in the Indiana defense — the linebacker/safety hybrid position the Hoosiers refer to as the Husky — is a big part of what makes the Hoosiers’ defense dangerous. The 6-foot, 214-pounder has been exceptional in that position with 201 tackles including 15.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, three interceptions and 16 passes defensed in his career.

At the moment he’s still working his way back into full health. His body is mostly rehabilitated, but he’s not ready for team work in pads yet. That’s coming slowly, but he does expect to be ready in time for the season opener on Sept. 4.

That should make a ball-hawking Indiana defense that led the Big Ten in interceptions without him even more dangerous.

“To have his experience out there and be able to coach the young guys up, he’s an old vet,” Shelby said. “He knows how to prepare his mind and his body. I’m excited to go out there and watch him play this final year.”

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