Ball State linebacker Anthony Ekpe holds up a "Detroit or Bust" belt during a game for the Cardinals in 2020.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Anthony Ekpe remembers watching Ball State’s football games in 2019.

That season, the Cardinals went 5-7. Ekpe wasn’t looking at the record, though it was the best finish BSU had since 2014; he was looking at the potential. He saw how many close games BSU was in — the Cardinals lost to Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Kent State by eight points combined — and how hard the defense played.

Before transferring to Ball State ahead of the 2020 season, Ekpe spent the previous three seasons playing at Rice University, which was located just under three hours away from his hometown of Pflugerville, Texas. There, Ekpe led the Owls with six sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2018 and was named an All-Conference USA Honorable Mention player by the coaches.

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But Ekpe thought about the opportunity in Muncie. He thought about all the talent that Ball State had returning in 2020 and how “they had a really good shot of making it really far,” he said.

“I was like, ‘Why not be a part of that?'” Ekpe said. “I knew it was far from home, but I also used that as an opportunity to, you know, see that as a sign to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. A lot of people don’t like to get outside of their comfort zone. I took that chance. I took that risk and I’m so glad that it all worked out.”

In retrospect, Ekpe’s decision more than “worked out.”

Last season, Ball State won its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1996 and first bowl victory thanks, in part, to its defense. Ekpe was a catalyst on the defense, earning a conference-best two forced fumbles, a team-high in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (seven) while starting four of the eight games he played in.

As a result of Ekpe’s efforts, the outside linebacker was one of four Ball State football players to earn All-MAC First Team honors. 

Ball State linebacker Anthony Ekpe tries to maneuver around a Buffalo offensive lineman during the Mid-American Conference championship game at Ford Field on Dec. 18, 2020.

“I’m just so happy man, I’m just so humbled and I’m so glad to be around a group of guys who care so much, not just about the game but each other,” Ekpe said. “I really feel like that reflects in the way that we play. You could go anywhere else in the country and not every locker room is going to have the culture where everyone is bought in and is ready to work. It’s a contagious thing.”

Last season, the success of BSU’s linebackers certainly seemed contagious. Inside linebacker Brandon Martin earned All-MAC First Team honors along with Ekpe. Outside linebacker Christian Albright and inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas earned Second and Third Team All-MAC honors, respectively. And there was Jimmy Daw, who was named the MAC Championship defensive MVP after recording a career-high three tackles for loss, strip-sack and blocked field goal.

It’s a deep group, which also includes Keionté Newson and Clayton Coll. Ekpe said being able to work with that group sparked something inside him last season.

“I feel like it was just something that was waiting for the right moment and these guys took it out of me, unlocked it out of me and I give a lot of credit to this coaching staff and a lot of credit to these guys around me,” Ekpe said. “… We’re all here to achieve one thing and, for that reason, that’s just really pushing me and helping me to do what I did on the field.”

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Thinking back to last season — before Ekpe showed what he can do on the field — Connolly laughed because Ekpe wasn’t even a starter when he first arrived at Ball State.

“What were we thinking as coaches?” Connolly said. “That wasn’t a good coaching job.”

He added: “When we first started camp (in 2020), he was actually working with the inside linebackers and coach (Tyler) Stockton. He was working, fighting to get in the rotation there and we were looking for a way to get him on the field. So, we tried him out at what we call our ‘book’ linebacker, kind of our rush-end type of guy. We brought him over to the one-on-ones that first practice and the first rep he had in one-on-ones, he ran right by the tackle and my jaw kind of dropped.”

After that practice, Connolly went over to defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Tyler Stockton and told him Ekpe’s “going to be on the field every third down for us this fall.”

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Standing at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Ekpe possesses both the speed and strength needed to succeed at outside linebacker. Connolly noted his quick get-off-the-ball speed, his “heavy hands” and arm length, which allows him to push off offensive lineman and get into the backfield.

It wasn’t easy for Ekpe to transfer during the COVID-19 pandemic, learn a new system and culture at BSU. But Ekpe did it, and he excelled.

Coming off an all-conference season, Ekpe didn’t have any specific goals or expectations for himself. He talked about wanting to be “in the moment” and “being the best player I can be for this program.” Connolly concurred, saying his only goals for Ekpe were to “continue to grow, excel and be an even better player than he was last year.”

But while Ekpe didn’t have any individual goals for himself this season, he made it clear why he and so many other veteran players decided to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility. As he picked up his pads and walked out of Ball State’s indoor practice facility, he had this to say:

“Let’s run this back.”

Robby General covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high school athletics for The Star Press. Contact him via email at rgeneral@gannett.com, on Twitter @rgeneraljr or phone at 765-283-8864.

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