MUNCIE — Ball State defensive end Keenan Noel, a Columbus North graduate, wants to put the Cardinals’ program back on the map of college football relevancy.
“We have a lot of doubters, especially in the state of Indiana,” Noel said. “In (Columbus) it’s all about Indiana, and it’s all you hear about. Indiana is going to be surprised this year. Not Indiana University, but the whole state of Indiana will be surprised with what we do. If they thought 6-6 was a good season last year, then they’re in for a big surprise.”
If Ball State is to make a run at winning the Mid-American Conference and playing in the postseason, a pair of Columbus North grads, Noel and wide receiver Chris Shillings, might play key roles.
Noel, a redshirt freshman, is practicing some with the starters, just one year after making the move from fullback to defensive tackle then defensive end.
“On the defensive line we play a lot of people,” Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. “So, Keenan, whether he ends up being a starter or backup, is going to be playing a lot of snaps for us.”
While in high school, Noel played fullback, while seeing limited snaps at defensive end.
“They said I could stay at fullback and get 10 to 15 plays a game, or I could go to defense and potentially start,” Noel said. “I’d do
anything for this team. If they told me they wanted me to kick, I would do my best to kick it. I felt like whatever I wasn’t not good at my coaches would get me right.”
Noel has added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame since arriving on campus, opening this season at 265 pounds. He was named the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year last season, playing at nose tackle before moving to end during spring workouts.
“We’re really excited about Keenan,” Lembo said. “He has a great attitude, and he’s one of our strongest guys in the weight room. He’s a big, good-looking athlete. He’s got a great motor out here on the field, and he’s really embraced the move to the defensive line. He’s working his way up the depth chart.”
When Noel puts on the Ball State uniform for the Aug. 30 season-opener against Eastern Michigan, emotions will be running high.
“I’m going to be so passionate — I might cry, I don’t know,” Noel said. “I can’t even tell you what it’s going to be like. I just know when I walk out on the field, see the stands filled with everybody, that’s when it’s going to be real to me that I’m a college football player. This is what I live for. Just knowing I’m blessed enough to get here and be at this scene is just amazing.”
While Noel was able to red-shirt last season, Shillings wasn’t as fortunate.
“Chris had to play for us on special teams and a little bit at wide receiver because of our lack of depth,” Lembo said. “I wish we could have red-shirted him because that would have really helped him, but Chris sort of got thrown into the fire.”
Shillings didn’t have a reception last season but played in six games and had one special teams tackle. Ball State’s top receivers last year — Briggs Orsbon and Torieal Gibson — graduated, so voids will have to be filled in the Cardinals’ three-wide-receiver formation.
“I thought he had one of the best spring camps out of all of the 11 receivers I had,” said Ball State wide receivers coach Keith Gaither. “He had a great offseason, hit the weight room and polished his skills as a receiver. He’s doing well, but I’d like to see him take the next step.”
That “next step” included Shillings earning a role as a starter, which will come after more consistent performances in practice. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Shillings is used as an inside slot receiver who can block on screens and run inside routes.
“Yeah, if I can start to become more consistent then I can get more playing time,” Shillings said. “For me it’s consistency, and I’m having that problem right now. Once I can be more consistent on every play, every down, I think I can get in that rotation. Every play has to be 100 percent of what they’re looking for.”
Columbus East grad Tyler Rayburn is a red-shirt freshman offensive lineman who is battling to be a backup to longtime starting guard Kitt O’Brien. Columbus North grad Kyle Kamman is a freshman quarterback who is unlikely to see playing time this season.
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