Zack Ryan hopes that you look past the roster dimensions. Maybe suspend your initial impression of him on the football field.
He understands if you don’t, and he’s OK with that. He doesn’t mind surprising people. Enjoys it, truth be told. Even those who may have doubted him at the place he now calls home.
“I came here and proved myself,” Ball State’s senior middle linebacker said. “That’s kind of how I roll. I like to be the underdog and show them I can do the job on the field.”
Ryan progressed from lightly recruited walk-on to scholarship player to starter to critical piece of the Cardinals’ defense.
“If he wasn’t doing his job successfully, then we wouldn’t be very good on defense,” Ball State linebackers coach Johnny Curtis said.
Ryan is Ball State’s third-leading tackler, a four-year starter who is the program’s active leader in starts (38) and tackles (305).
“I’ve definitely improved, physically, mentally,” he said. “I’m watching more film. I think that really helps, really shows up on the field. Physically, I’m working hard in the weight room, which also pays off on the field. My conditioning is really good. I feel like I’m faster and the game is slowing down for me.”
Ryan, 5-11 and 220 pounds, is not from central casting, where middle linebackers go 6-2 and 240, and are all menace and destruction. He compensates in many ways: effort and preparation; quickness and athletic ability. The desire of a young man who wants to emulate his father and older brothers is a powerful tool.
Ryan is a member of what might be the “First Family of Football” in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake, Ohio. Tim Ryan was a wide receiver who caught more than 100 career passes at Wake Forest in the early 1980s. Oldest son Connor was also a wideout and captain at Ball State. Jake Ryan is a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 after an outstanding career at Michigan.
Zack won a state title as a senior in high school at Ohio power St. Ignatius, before following Connor to Ball State. Youngest son Ian was a good prep football player who gave up the game after high school and attends Indiana.
“Connor and I have a receiver’s mentality,” Tim Ryan said. “We want to get away from contact. Jake and Zack like to run into stuff and hit people. We think they might be adopted.”
All four boys gravitated toward football at an early age. Tim coached them in middle school. The brothers got along, for the most part, with typical pecking order squabbles and fights.
“The house got kind of messed up a lot, but we were pretty good about cleaning up,” Zack Ryan said. “Things always got destroyed, but we couldn’t go to bed until we cleaned up.”
Tim Ryan responded: “Holes in drywall don’t clean up. There were quite a few holes in the drywall through the years.”
Thankfully, the holes were confined to the basement, where the four boys played “knee football” — full-contact, tackle football where players had to remain on their knees. Tim Ryan said that “trophy holes” remain, a kind of unintentional shrine.
The entire family embraced the game. Sue Ryan was often the automatic quarterback for her sons’ 2-on-2 outdoor games in the yard. Tim joked that she was first-team all-backyard because, even at 5-2 and 110 pounds, she possessed a pretty fair arm and threw a nice ball.
Despite Zack’s success and productivity in high school, he had scant recruiting interest because of his stature. He was determined to play Division I football, and accepted Ball State’s offer of a walk-on spot because of his familiarity with the program. He earned a starting spot as a redshirt freshman, as well as a scholarship, and has been a fixture in the lineup since.
“He understands schemes,” Curtis said. “He understands what is going on in front of him and behind him, and that allows him to exploit the next option in the play. He makes a lot of plays that, quite frankly, aren’t his, but he makes them anyhow. I think that’s a tribute to his studying the tendencies of other offenses, his ability to get off blocks, and of course his effort toward the football.”
Among his career highlights were the Eastern Michigan game as a redshirt sophomore, where he had 15 tackles and forced two fumbles. He had seven tackles in a win at Virginia as a redshirt freshman. He recorded 10 tackles versus Texas A&M last season.
This season, he made two huge plays in the fourth quarter of a 31-27 win at Florida Atlantic. He stuffed the running back on fourth-and-1 at the Ball State 30, as FAU drove for a potential game-clinching score. His interception with 1:18 remaining preserved the win.
Even during difficult times, Ryan never has to look far for encouragement.
“I think that’s the biggest factor in why I like football,” he said. “Growing up in a family that played football. Having four boys in the house, plus my dad, it’s crazy. … When you’re in camp, and nobody likes camp, but it’s nice to have so many to call that support you and you can rely on them to have your back. It’s a special thing that not many people have.”