Ball State football training camp: 'Diverse' running backs could be strength of offense

MUNCIE, Ind. — Carson Steele is at UCLA, but Ball State football is confident that its 2023 running back room can fill the void left by last year's Mid-American Conference leading rusher.
Transfers Marquez Cooper (2022 First Team All-MAC) from Kent State and Charlie Spegal (2019 Indiana Mr. Football) from IU, redshirt sophomores Vaughn Pemberton and Rico Barfield, and talented freshmen in TJ Horton and Christian Davis offer the Cardinals a deep roster of playmakers.
The challenge during training camp is finding the best ways to utilize them.
"I think (the new depth) allows us to really play to the talents of each back and really put our best 11 guys on the field," running backs coach Joey Hecklinski said. "I think we'll have a very diverse attack where the ball is going to be spread around a lot, which will make it very hard to defend."
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While the depth chart isn't set, Cooper has typically practiced with the first unit, and the redshirt junior's experience and skillset shine on the field through his vision, agility, patience and burst of speed.
Behind a solid offensive line and with back-to-back seasons of at least 1,200 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, Cooper should again produce despite being used differently than he was at Kent State.
"He has an exceptional ability to get through small holes and find creases and set up his blocks," Hecklinski said. "Then he's really a matchup nightmare in the pass game as well."
More: Ball State football training camp: Hatcher named QB1, but competition continues
Cooper said he was "underutilized" as a receiver at KSU, totaling just 18 catches for 189 yards and zero scores over the last two seasons. Steele caught 29 balls for 166 yards and one score in 2022, and Ball State's players and coaches said the plan this fall is to more frequently throw to its capable running backs.
"They really want to do that and I think it's really gonna help me with going to the next level," Cooper said. "So that's gonna be a good thing for the team and me."
Cooper also looks 100% healthy after undergoing surgery for appendicitis on April 31. He said his teammates showed immense support during his recovery, which helped him feel more comfortable in his new surroundings.
"They came to visit me in the hospital," Cooper said. "Just through hard times and hard work in the offseason, we gained a good relationship."
Hecklinski praised Cooper's fearless mindset and toughness since returning, and Cooper showcased those traits on Tuesday during a pass protection drill by thumping the blitzing defender and igniting a roar from his excited teammates.
"I'm not the biggest guy, but I've got the biggest heart," Cooper said. "I'm gonna hit you every time. I'm gonna hold my ground. I'm gonna do my job."
Right behind Cooper in first unit reps is Pemberton, who flashed his unique blend of size and quickness during the team's Spring Game and has only built on that momentum since.
At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, Pemberton looks more like a bruiser than a pass catcher, yet the Cardinals seem comfortable with his receiving abilities and even lined him up out wide on Tuesday.
Pemberton said that teammates have been surprised at his route running and credited his size-15 feet and cross-sport training as reasons why he moves so well.
"I think that's a big advantage I have on people because I grew up playing basketball," Pemberton said. "I've had my footwork down for my whole life. It's something my dad used to force me to do because we've all got big feet in my family."
Still, Pemberton said he will get many runs in between the tackles as well.
He and Cooper have also been in the backfield together during camp. The pair feels they compliment each other well and can keep defenses guessing.
"I feel like we've got two different running styles," Cooper said. "It's gonna kill the defense because they're not gonna know really what's coming next."
Although Cooper and Pemberton will likely garner the most snaps, BSU's backups have made an impression as well.
Cooper cited Barfield as a standout. Horton on Tuesday caught a long touchdown down the sideline, and Davis weaved for a long run near the goal line before suffering a left knee injury. The severity is still unknown but Pemberton was optimistic.
Hecklinski confident shows in rotating all the backs with each unit, seeing what each player can do with different teammates while fostering more competition.
Nothing is certain until they hit the field, but Ball State believes it's running backs are a strength.
"I feel good about them," Cooper said. "If anything happened to me or I need to tap my helmet or to get out the game, I feel confident that somebody else is gonna bring good tools to the squad and help us win the game."

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