Memories of Isaiah Ballard still persist within the University of Toledo football program, even after he was kicked off the team for an off-campus attack on another UT student in May that resulted in him being charged with felonious assault.
Video of Ballard making a tackle against Central Michigan is shown during UT's television commercial advertising the "ultimate fan plan" season ticket package, and Ballard's former teammates and coaches admit his absence is a significant loss.
The Rogers graduate was expected to retain his starting role on defense at the "star" position -- a linebacker/safety hybrid in coach Tim Beckman's 4-2-5 scheme -- while maintaining his strong presence in all four phases of special teams: kick return, punt return, kick coverage, and punt coverage.
Although it's taken a host of players to fill Ballard's shoes on special teams, senior Charles Rancifer has stepped into the starting spot at the star after serving as Ballard's understudy last season.
"Isaiah and I were real close. We had a good relationship on and off the field," Rancifer said. "Isaiah did a lot of good things for this team. He played a lot on special teams and a lot of ball on defense. I mean, he brought a lot to the table. We really miss that, but some guys have to step up and fill in for what he did."
Rancifer joined the Rockets last season after playing two seasons at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss., just 10 miles from where he grew up in Brookhaven, Miss.
As a quarterback in high school, Rancifer threw for 1,466 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior and ran for another 833 yards and four touchdowns. But if he wanted to keep playing football, Rancifer would have to do so on the other side of the ball -- a foreign place he had no experience with.
When he was moved to safety at Copiah-Lincoln, it was the first time Rancifer had ever played a snap on defense.
"Being at quarterback, you see the whole field and understand what's going on, and the transition to safety was basically the same thing but you're on defense," Rancifer said. "I think that helped me see things a lot better because I was a quarterback all those previous years."
As a freshman at Copiah-Lincoln, Rancifer finished third on the team with 100 tackles in nine games. The following year he began playing the star position and was fourth on the team with 52 tackles in eight games, along with three forced fumbles, one sack and one interception, despite missing part of the season due to a broken ankle.
"We recruited him as a star a couple years ago knowing that we were going to lose [Barry] Church to the NFL," Beckman said. "I think he's come in and learned quite a bit."
That learning curve for Rancifer gets shorter and shorter every year, and he seems to be fully acclimated to doling out big hits now instead of avoiding them during his days as a quarterback.
Rancifer was named one of the Rockets' two defensive MVPs from last Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage at the Glass Bowl after registering the "big hit" of the day against reserve tight end Grant Pleasant, who suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury on the play.
Rancifer, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 217 pounds, has shown a penchant for laying the lumber during his time in a UT uniform, and if there's one clear advantage to having him at the star now, it's his size.
"He's a little bit bigger than Isaiah and has a little bit more girth on him," Beckman said of Rancifer. "He's just not quite as fast as Isaiah."
Even though his role has changed, Rancifer said he's trying to remain humble and keep his same approach to the game.
"I'm just trying to bring relentless effort every day," said Rancifer, an individualized studies major. "I don't want to let my team down and I'm going to give 100 percent every play."
Contact Zach Silka at: email@example.com or 419-724-6084.
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