The first time Neiron Ball rushed the passer during fall camp, Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn knew he might have something special.
All defensive line coach Bryant Young could do was smile. Quinn marveled at Ball’s combination of quickness and size.
“I saw him go right past the guy,” Quinn said. “We had just added a pass rusher here that we didn’t even know about.”
How could Quinn have known? Quinn was hired in January 2011, and Ball missed UF’s 2011 spring and fall seasons with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). The congenital condition occurs when a blood vessel ruptures near the brain, and it forced Ball to suffer through many hours of agony in the hospital.
“It was like the worst headache ever,” Ball said. “The closest thing I can think is somebody just smushing my brain.”
Ball eventually recovered, and in June he was cleared to play. He has appeared in every game this season and is expected to play again on Saturday when No. 8 Florida (7-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) faces Missouri (4-4, 1-4 SEC) on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The transition from a year in and out of the hospital to a starting role in the Southeastern Conference has not been easy.
The 231-pound Ball said he is still five pounds under his ideal playing weight, which makes dealing with the grind of the season that much more difficult.
“I ain’t used to it like I was,” Ball said. “Now my body is kind of beat up. I’m still fighting through it.”
Ball is also learning a new defensive scheme, a process he said is “coming along.” When Ball played in 13 games as a freshman in 2010, Urban Meyer was coach and Teryl Austin was calling the defensive plays.
Quinn has seen Ball improve from week to week. Ball has notched nine tackles and made his first career interception on Saturday off a batted pass by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
“[Ball is] a really good player,” coach Will Muschamp said. “When you miss that much time, it doesn’t come back as easily as it does for others. It’s come back very quickly for him.”
Still, after four to six months away from the weight room, Ball needs to get stronger.
Muschamp said Ball’s flexibility, quickness and explosiveness have the Gators excited about his potential.
“We’re going to make him live in the weight room for about six months,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a promising career in front of him.”
In the meantime, Ball will play underweight. Compared to the other things he’s overcome in the past year, it isn’t that much of an obstacle. He’s just happy to be on the field again.
“I’m thankful for that, because there has been some adversity,” Ball said. “I’m just ready to finish fighting through it.”
Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].