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‘Making the days count’: Marcelino McCrary-Ball returns for sixth year after watching memorable 2020 season from sideline

Instead of trying to intercept Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, or defending Jahan Dotson in the secondary, Marcelino McCrary-Ball recorded the game on Instagram Live. It was a way to connect with his team, even if he wouldn’t put on shoulder pads or lace his cleats for months. 

McCrary-Ball had surgery to repair a torn ACL on Oct. 24, 2020, the same day Indiana hosted No. 8 Penn State. But that didn’t stop him from supporting the teammates for whom he cared so deeply. 

McCrary-Ball said it was good to see Indiana “ball out,” but one question remained in his mind.

“I didn’t have no negative thoughts,” McCrary-Ball said. “It was more so just like, ‘Shoot, can I go out there and play?’”

Obviously, McCrary-Ball wasn’t physically able to take the field. But emotionally, he was with his teammates during their upset of Penn State, capped off by Michael Penix Jr.’s dive for the pylon in overtime. 

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It’s clear that McCrary-Ball misses running out of the tunnel with his team, but after the NCAA granted every Division I football player an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, all is not lost. The 2021 season will be the second year in a row that the word “senior” relates McCrary-Ball’s name. It will also be his sixth year in Bloomington.

“I had to take advantage of that,” McCrary-Ball said. “That doesn’t happen. It’s a blessing in disguise, I guess, and I appreciate it.”

McCrary-Ball was an honorable mention to the 2016 All-Big Ten team and Indiana’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year. In 2017, he received a medical redshirt after a season-ending injury resulted in him playing just three games as a sophomore. 

During his redshirt sophomore season, McCrary-Ball finished in the top three on the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and pass breakups. A similarly successful redshirt junior season led to big expectations for McCrary-Ball’s fifth year as a Hoosier.

But head coach Tom Allen announced on Sept. 28, 2020 that McCrary-Ball tore his ACL, sidelining McCrary-Ball for the entire 2020 season. In September, Allen said the injury was specifically frustrating because it happened in a non-contact drill. 

ACL injuries take certain athletes a full year to recover, but McCrary-Ball wondered if he could still contribute on Indiana’s 2020 defense in some way. On Nov. 14, as Indiana prepared to avenge its 2019 loss to Michigan State, McCrary-Ball thought a quick Google search might give him an answer. 

“I remember looking up ‘When’s the quickest you can come back from an ACL surgery?’” McCrary-Ball said. 

McCrary-Ball admits that two or three months after his surgery, he probably still couldn’t play man-to-man coverage or blitz, but maybe he could contribute in Indiana’s cover-three or cover-four package. Still, all McCrary-Ball could do was watch from the sidelines as the Indiana defense finished second in the country with 17 interceptions in just eight games.

“I was sitting there like, ‘Man, they’re going off, they’re balling,’” McCrary-Ball said.

But he remembers one game in 2020 when Indiana running back Stevie Scott did not play particularly well. In this moment, McCrary ball stressed four simple words that showed his leadership.

“It could be worse,” McCrary-Ball told Scott, smiling. 

“Dang, man, I didn’t have a good game,” Scott said as he stared at he ground, his head shaking in frustration. 

“It could be worse, buddy,” McCrary-Ball reassured Scott. 

What McCrary-Ball meant in that moment was that Scott could have no game at all. He could be standing on the sideline with a torn ACL, anxiously waiting like McCrary-Ball did all year. He couldn’t lead on the field, but these natural qualities still prevailed on the sideline. 

McCrary-Ball said that throughout the 2020 season, he battled with his trainers to get him on the field at some point. His leadership and experience would have helped the Indiana defense a season ago, but he could have an even greater impact in 2021.

McCrary-Ball had ACL surgery on the same day as teammates Sam Daugstrup and Khalil Benson, and together, they are working towards a return to the field. McCrary-Ball said he is not yet practicing fully with the team, but is eager to be back when the time is right.

The next time Indiana fans will see McCrary-Ball in the defensive backfield will be under the direction of a new defensive coordinator. On Jan. 27, Indiana announced that Charlton Warren will replace Kane Wommack, who took the head coaching job at South Alabama.

Warren first entered the coaching realm in 2005 when he became a graduate assistant at Air Force. He worked his way up the ladder, holding jobs as defensive backs coach, recruiting coordinator, co-defensive coordinator, associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Air Force.

He later coached defensive backs at Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee before becoming the cornerbacks coach at Florida. As Warren prepares to lead Indiana’s defense in 2021, McCrary-Ball has been impressed with his new coach.

No matter who is coaching the defense, McCrary-Ball mentions three qualities that will always remain: playing with an edge, tackling and takeaways. McCrary-Ball said that no matter what coverage the defense is in or how many guys are blitzing on a given play, these three traits are vital. 

“That’s what we live by,” McCrary-Ball said. “And that’s what we’re going to die by. if we don’t have that, it’s lost.”

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Indiana will still run Allen’s signature 4-2-5 defense, and McCrary-Ball figures to play an integral role. Before his ACL injury, McCrary-Ball was slotted to start at Indiana’s husky position, which is a position that combines the pass-rushing and run-stopping responsibilities of a linebacker with the pass coverage responsibilities of a defensive back.

And when he returns, he doesn’t want people to call him an “old head,” even if there’s a chance he’s the oldest player on the field each week in 2021. McCrary-Ball said during his true senior season in 2019, he used to think he was an “old head,” which is a nickname players give to fourth- or fifth-year players.

“Pretty much as an old head you walk around like, ‘Dang, I’m old. I’ve seen all this.’ And that stuff really gets in your head. You’ll start moving like an old man,” McCrary-Ball said.

But before the 2020 season, even prior to his ACL injury, McCrary-Ball said he worked to change this mentality. Part of this is because he has been there to see it all. 

“I don’t really see myself as an old head, I’ve just been here and that’s cool,” McCrary-Ball said. “I’ve experienced it all. I know what it feels like, metaphorically speaking, when the lights are off.”

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Barely defeating Ball State in 2016, followed by two 5-7 seasons in a row, McCrary-Ball has been there for the struggle. Now, seeing a 2020 season where Indiana defeated Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all in the same season for the first time in program history, McCrary-Ball is here for the rise. 

“It’s crazy,” McCrary-Ball said. “But as far as being here so long, that don’t really phase me because everyone’s time is going to come. I’m making the days count.”

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My name is Jack Ankony and I am a sophomore from Mount Prospect, Illinois. I am a huge Chicago sports fan who loves to write and talk about sports.

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