BY JACK KIZER | Ball State Sports Link
Getting “Dialed In” means something different for every athlete. Unique mindsets, actions and activities comprise this phrase for each person.
The process Ball State running back Malik Dunner goes through has been a catalyst for his success this season. Through nine games, Dunner leads the team with six all-purpose touchdowns (5 rushing, 1 kick-off return) and has nearly doubled his rushing yardage from last season with 295 this year.
Despite playing alongside four different quarterbacks in 2017, Dunner has continued to produce. He prefers to view his production from a wider scope, however.
“When I get the ball, I’ve just got to make a play,” Dunner said. “I don’t think about stats or anything like that. It’s not about me or how many times I get the ball. It’s about the team. Scoring touchdowns is going to give us a chance to win, and that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Touchdowns have been hard to come by recently for Ball State. Before the Oct. 26 home game against Toledo, the Cardinals had not scored a touchdown in over a month. Dunner was the one to end the drought, with a 41-yard dash to the end zone in the first quarter.
“It was a big one,” Dunner said. “We executed and that was the biggest thing, to see ourselves execute, because we haven’t been in the end zone in a while. Everyone was fired up, and I hope we can use it to get back on track offensively.”
His process of achieving success, however, begins well before the ball is snapped. Dunner walked through what his pregame and postgame progressions were surrounding the Toledo game. This is how Malik Dunner gets “Dialed In”.
Wednesday, October 25th:
The weekday slate of games for Ball State and the Mid-American Conference is a new twist to the season and scheduling for players. With game No. 8 of the regular season approaching, Dunner arrives at the team hotel downtown Muncie around 7 p.m. the night before the matchup against league-leading Toledo. He has no classes on gameday, so tomorrow’s schedule won’t be an issue.
First on tap for Dunner is dinner once he drops his belongings off in his room. He chooses corn, steak, chicken, a bread roll and apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream as the contents of his meal.
Dunner’s stomach is satisfied, so it’s time to proceed to the 8 p.m. meeting with the entire offense. Head Coach Mike Neu and the offensive staff rehash the plays, blocking schemes and routes they’ve covered all week. Dunner and his teammates have the information down-pat, but an extra review session and time for questions never hurts. When 8:30 p.m. rolls around, just the players gather this time.
“We talk about what we think about our opponent and what we need to do better as a team,” Dunner said. “If there are issues, we confront them. It’s good to hear from the players and have it just between us. It’s a good thing for us to do every week.”
The team members say what they want and return to their rooms around 9 p.m. Free time fills the rest of the night and Dunner uses it to relax in his room. Season 2 of Stranger Things is available on Netflix, and he gladly binges on the newly released show. Dunner moves his attention away from the TV to his music featuring Chief Keef. He enjoys his downtime as he knows tomorrow will have a different vibe.
“I’m typically not in a game mood the day before the game, but when I wake up in the morning, it’s go time.”
Before going to sleep, Dunner attends to some homework from his online classes. It’s now 10:30 p.m. and time to get some rest. To the dislike of Dunner, roommate Caleb Huntley sleeps in the bed furthest from the window while he gets settled in the bed closest to it.
“I wish I would get the bed away from the window. It’s cold out now and then you’ve got the sun shining through in the morning.”
Dunner fights through the disappointment and falls asleep around 11 p.m.
Thursday, October 26th:
Gameday. Dunner rises at 9 a.m. in preparation for breakfast in an hour. He exits his room with Huntley and the pair of running backs proceed to the hotel’s dining room. Dunner loads his plate up with pancakes, hashbrowns, bacon and sausage. He washes it all down with orange juice, one of his favorite drinks. With all the running backs sitting together, conversation and laughter circulate throughout the table.
“This is the stuff you’ll never forget if you’re a college football player,” Dunner said. “Football is a serious sport, but when you have downtime and you’re able to get to know the guys, that’s the good part I’d say.”
Due to a late 7 p.m. kickoff, downtime is plentiful for the team. Two more hours are available before the final pregame meetings. Today, however, is all business for Dunner.
He doesn’t watch any TV, listens to more Chief Keef to get the juices flowing, studies his preparation and refuses to go on social media. The little time he spends on his phone is used to text his mother, Thelma, who will be watching from her home in Carpentersville, Illinois.
A special teams meeting where the staff reviews coverages and potential tactics from the opponent, as well as a running backs meeting going over the information from the previous night come in the early afternoon. Another team meal follows at 3:30 p.m., and the players load the buses at 4:45.
Dunner gets there just a few minutes early to sit up front. After arriving at Scheumann Stadium and going through the ceremonial Cardinal Walk, his tactics of staying at the front of the pack pay off when he’s first in line to get his wrists and ankles taped in the locker room.
He walks back to his locker, plugs in his headphones once again and relaxes. While others go out to the field to get loose, Dunner is content to stay where he is and prepare internally.
An hour before the game, it’s time for him to warm up with the rest of the special teams unit. He fields kickoffs from kicker Ryan Rimmler for just five minutes prior to the rest of the team joining. Dunner stretches, takes a few handoffs, practices running routes out of the backfield, performs 7-on-7 drills and walks through a few plays with the offense.
Warm-ups conclude, and Ball State heads back into the locker room for Coach Neu’s pregame message.
“He talks about everything we need to do, sticking together as a team, and really just going out and executing. He’s always pretty amped up.”
Just two minutes remain before they take the field, Chief Keef’s My Baby plays throughout the locker room to get the team going. My Baby subsides and the Cardinals are introduced as they run onto the field. Dunner jogs to the opposite end zone, takes a knee, says a prayer to thank God for the ability to play football and finally heads to the sideline. It’s gametime.
Dunner’s touchdown isn’t enough to help Ball State keep pace with Toledo. The Cardinals lose their fifth straight game, a challenging reality for Dunner.
“I’ve never been through anything like this before,” Dunner said. “But I talk to my mom a lot and tell her that it’s hard. She always tells me to keep my head up and that things could be a lot worse.”
The exchanges with his mom help him keep a positive mindset.
“Guys this year know what it feels like to lose. That’ll help us down the road. We’ve got some guys down right now, but we are going to be a lot better team next year.”
As Dunner walks into the locker room, he doesn’t say much and listens to Coach Neu’s postgame speech.
“He talked about the team staying together,” Dunner said. “That’s been a big emphasis around here lately since things haven’t been going our way. Things aren’t going to always go your way…that’s life. But we’re trying to stick together as a team and have a positive attitude around here. Things could be a lot worse. There’s people that can’t walk anywhere, and we’re the lucky ones because we get to play football. Win or lose, we’re lucky to play football.”
Dunner takes Neu’s message with him as he leaves to get a Big Mac at McDonalds. He gets home, but can’t fall asleep with the adrenaline of the game still running through him. Dunner watches Netflix to clear his mind and eventually drifts off to sleep around 3 a.m.
For Dunner, each week his pregame and postgame processes have their different nuances. Consistency is also present throughout the season. But, the primary constant for Dunner is a new chance to compete and another chance to get “Dialed In”.