BY NICK LAWLER | Ball State Sports Link
Ball State’s historic football season may have come to an end, but the chance to make history continues.
Antonio Phillips and Caleb Huntley, two of brightest stars in the program throughout the past four seasons, were selected to participate in the East-West Shrine Bowl just a few days after the conclusion of the Cardinals’ first bowl win in program history.
They are the eighth and ninth BSU players all-time to be selected and the first since quarterback Keith Wenning in 2013. The nation’s oldest college football all-star game, the East-West Shrine Bowl dates back to its original contest in 1925.
In Arizona, Phillips started off the high-scoring game for Ball State with a 53-yard pick-6 less than three minutes into the first quarter. That moment, which represented a final highlight on an amazing career, was a feeling of “pure excitement” for Phillips.
Phillips, a two-time All-MAC selection, finished with eight career interceptions. He also picked off a pass in the MAC Championship Game.
The St. Louis, Missouri, product was on the watch lists for the 2020 Bednarik, Thorpe and Nagurski awards.
Huntley had previously opted out of the season finale in preparation for the draft after suffering an injury earlier in the season, but noted that watching his team’s success “was very heartwarming.
“We’ve been through so much as a team,” Huntley said. “So just to see them accomplish everything that we said we were going to accomplish before the season was just a wonderful feeling. I can’t describe it, but it was just incredible.”
Huntley, also a two-time All-MAC selection, earned the honor this year despite playing in only three games because of injury. He ran for 437 yards and six touchdowns in those three games.
The Atlanta, Georgia, native finished his career seventh on Ball State’s all-time rushing list with 2,902 yards and 10th in school history with 21 touchdowns. He was on the watch lists for the Doak Walker and Maxwell awards.
With such a great opportunity present, both players moved right into the grind preparing to showcase themselves for the next level. Huntley has been preparing in Fort Lauderdale, while Phillips is currently in Las Vegas.
Both acknowledged how intense their training has been preparing for the NFL Draft.
“One word — tough,” Huntley said. “At the end of the day, once you’re done, you’re literally eating and going to sleep. It’s a grind for sure.”
Phillips noted that while he was very excited to be selected, he was more focused on taking full advantage of it.
“It’s a very big opportunity and there’s still a job to be done,” Phillips said. “I’m just enjoying the process, being able to meet some great guys, training with some elite players.”
While still an incredible event, the East-West Game will look a little different in 2021. For starters, the actual game will not be played for the first time in 96 years. This scenario will require the players to tackle the interview portion of the event even harder.
“Just making sure I’m prepared and ready to answer any questions they have for me,” Huntley said. “Also working hard at the other bowl games that I’ve been invited to so I can show them everything that I need to. I’m prepared to take the next step at the next level.”
Phillips also noted how critical it will be to “go over different schemes and stuff with the coaches to show that I will be able to do my job and be successful in their program.”
While both players ooze the natural ability the NFL covets, it usually takes something special to prove your worth to an NFL franchise. Phillips points to his unique versatility in the defensive backfield, something that is worth a lot these days.
“The NFL is a passing league,” Phillips said. “So there’s always a need for more defensive backs. I think that my versatility, being able to come up and tackle, play inside and outside, and offer some length and height to a team.”
Huntley’s approach of showcasing his “determination, toughness, and just the ability to be a team player, a team-first player,” epitomizes what made him such an amazing player at Ball State, and what will prove to be behind his success at the next level.
The success also presents a stepping stone for Ball State itself, and Huntley hopes it helps the program and the players rise to the top.
“Any player for [Ball State] can step up and do the same, and I hope they even do bigger and maybe even get selected to Reese’s Senior Bowl.”
Players from the MAC can be overlooked at times when it comes to making an NFL squad, but Huntley wants to prove that they belong when he goes through the bowl game process. “I’m ready to them I can do it all.”
With players like this entering the professional ranks and joining recent Cardinals to do the same, Ball State could be well-represented in the NFL in the years to come.