A familiar group returns to Muncie after adding a MAC championship and bowl victory to program lore.
The 2020 Ball State Cardinals will forever be etched in the annals of history in the town of Muncie, IN. After dropping a heartbreaker to Miami (OH) to usher in a makeshift pandemic-riddled Mid-American Conference season, the Cardinals regrouped and discovered themselves and their true potential as a team. Seven straight wins were rattled off, and Ball State wound up as conference champions for the first time in 24 years, bowl champions for the first time in history, and members of the final AP Poll rankings also for the first time in program history.
Now, five starting offensive linemen return to Muncie with rings on their fingers, as Mid-American Conference and Arizona Bowl champions.
Ball State secured a conference-high 13 All-MAC selections in 2020 with one hailing from the offensive line. Right tackle Curtis Blackwell, a reigning Second Team All-MAC honoree, is the experienced leader and tallest member of the unit at 6’5”. The fifth-year senior has started the majority of games for the Cardinals in every season since 2017, transitioning from right guard to tackle for the 2020 MAC championship season run. Entering 2021, he leads all Ball State players with 38 career starts, including a streak of 30 consecutive dating back to 2018.
Experience isn’t limited only to the right tackle slot. Kaleb Slaven is about to launch his fifth consecutive season protecting the blindside as the team’s starting left tackle. Slaven was a member of head coach Mike Neu’s first recruiting class in 2016, experiencing a gamut of contrasting results, from 2-10 in 2017 to ranked in the final 2020 AP Poll at 7-1.
Another longtime veteran anchors the line at center. Fifth-year senior Anthony Todd molded into the starting center role in 2019 as an injury replacement and claimed the job as a full-time gig for the 2020 season. At 6’3”, 304 pounds, Todd will provide size and strength in the middle of the line for the veteran offense.
Redshirt junior Jaylen Turner is one of the younger faces on the line, with only eight games of starting experience under his belt. Turner operates from the right guard position and formerly shadowed a star in Danny Pinter, who was selected as a fifth round NFL Draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 2020. The starting guard on the opposite side of Turner is similarly a redshirt junior, Joseph Boggs. Boggs, an Ohio native, started every game at left guard in 2020 after a pair of experience-building starts at left tackle in 2019.
Ball State has one of the larger offensive lines in the MAC, averaging a build of 6’4” and 305 pounds. When determining the greatest strength of the offensive line, run blocking certainly takes charge. In the MAC Championship Game against Buffalo, the offensive line paved the way for running back Tye Evans and wide receiver Justin Hall to rush for 149 yards on 6.2 per carry. Perhaps the run blocking highlight of the year was guiding running back Caleb Huntley to 240 rushing yards and three touchdowns — including a game-winner on the goal line — in a dramatic victory over Eastern Michigan.
Despite comfortable victories in Ball State’s two postseason games, the line yielded four sacks apiece in the MAC Championship Game and the Arizona Bowl. Ball State ranked eighth-to-last in pass protection in the FBS in 2020, allowing 3.26 sacks per game — a number which they’ll hope to improve with more collective experience as a unit.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has increased eligibility of players among the college football landscape, not many FBS rosters return all five starters from 2020 for 2021. Ball State’s group displays even more impressive longevity than most. The Cardinals have the luxury of a starting offensive line which features five players that have been with the program since 2018. Coach Neu has been there during this entire period of stability, and it will be the third year the unit operates under the direction of Colin Johnson, the offensive line coach.
With a sharp degree of experience, a feeling of accomplishment and confidence from 2020, and camaraderie across the line, Ball State’s starting five in the trenches will be a significant factor in propelling the team to a second consecutive conference championship.