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Indiana will play 2020 without Marcelino Ball. Who steps up next?

Marcelino Ball warms up for a game against Nebraska on Nov. 25, 2019 in Lincoln. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Leadership, versatility and talent. IU football lost these skills when redshirt senior husky Marcelino Ball tore his ACL during practice last week. Tom Allen announced that Ball will be out for the season. 

Ball was expected to start at IU’s hybrid safety-linebacker position for the third straight year. Instead, the injury will challenge the Hoosiers’ depth at a key position on defense.

You lose a guy like Marcelino, it’s not just production on the field,” Allen said. “It’s locker room, weight room, film study, practice and all the different things off the field. He was so locked in, and we were so excited for him to have a great season.”

As the incumbent starter, Ball handled duties at arguably the most important position on defensive coordinator Kane Wommack’s 3-2-5 defense. His production will be difficult to replicate.

Last season, Ball tallied two sacks and a team-high six quarterback hurries. Gifted with a rare ability to disrupt the run and rush the passer at a high level, while also dropping back in coverage in certain schemes, Ball’s presence was felt on nearly ever snap. Those rare abilities put Ball on The Athletic’s “college football Freaks List” for a second straight season.

However, his on-field presence wasn’t the only reason Allen was emotional when announcing Ball’s injury. The leadership and impact off the field will be sorely missed as Ball developed into a vocal and emotional leader on a young Hoosier defense.

“He’s matured so much as a young man,” Allen said. “He’ll handle this the right way and we wish him nothing but the best.”

In August, Ball said the IU defense had already “broken the gap” and was ready to be a next-level defense. Now, many of the Hoosiers he mentored will attempt to fill his role.

Allen has already tabbed one of those Hoosiers, Bryant Fitzgerald, as the starter. Though the junior has started only one game at husky in his career, his similar build and size to Ball makes him an ideal replacement. Last season, Fitzgerald started five games at free safety and tallied 27 tackles and three pass breakups.

“There’s certain packages that we will tweak and certain packages that will stay,” Wommack said. “I think Fitzgerald is doing a really good job at husky. He got experience back there playing free safety.”

Jamar Johnson huddles with teammates before a game against Nebraska on Nov. 26, 2019 in Lincoln. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

D.K. Bonhomme will back up Fitzgerald at husky, Allen said. The sophomore linebacker primarily saw action on special teams last year, but his raw skills have IU coaches excited about his potential. Sophomore defensive back Noah Pierre and junior safety Jamar Johnson, a backup at husky last season, are also options to see time behind Fitzgerald and Bonhomme.

“I feel like we got the depth to rotate different guys there,” Allen said. “Other guys got to rise up and that’s the reality every year.”

The IU football program always has numerous challenges. In an especially odd and difficult season, Ball’s injury adds to what is sure to be a wild ride for the Hoosiers.

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