MUNCIE, Ind.-As a high school quarterback, Trent Toothman was used to being the centerpiece, the player whom the entire gameplan revolved around.
When he graduated from Salem High School in 2011, Toothman left as the most decorated quarterback in school history, passing for a Columbiana County-record 5,637 yards along with 2,498 yards rushing and 81 career touchdowns and carrying the Quakers to consecutive playoff berths.
However, in order to play Division I college football he knew he would have to wipe the slate clean and start over from the bottom.
Toothman will take the field with the Ball State University Cardinals on national television Jan. 5 against Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com bowl. He will do so as a backup linebacker and special teams player, still trying to climb his way up the depth chart.
"It's been a tough adjustment, but I really wanted to play linebacker in college," Toothman said. "I knew that was my chance at going to a bigger school and I always loved playing the position."
Toothman's road to the bowl game has been long. He started at linebacker for the Quakers and played quite well, recording a team-high 79 tackles his senior season. He also punted, returned punts and ran on a state-qualifying 400-meter relay team. Ball State was impressed enough with his athleticism that the school offered him a full scholarship to play defense. It was an easy decision.
"They were the only school offering me a full ride," Toothman said. "Toledo and Bowling Green also showed some interest, but I knew pretty quickly where I was going."
There was also no chance of him going to a smaller school to play quarterback.
"It wasn't something I wanted to do," Toothman said. "Fordham (a Div. 1-AA school) talked to me a little bit, but I never really considered going there. I wanted to play linebacker."
Before Toothman could get to campus however, there was a brief moment of anxiety when he thought it might come apart. In December of his senior year, Cardinals coach Stan Parrish and his staff were fired. For a period of time, Toothman was not sure if his scholarship would be honored by whoever the new coach was.
"If they didn't recruit you, some coaches will give your scholarship to somebody else," Toothman said. "I had no idea what was going to happen."
Ball State hired Pete Lembo has the new coach a week later. Within a couple of days, Toothman's concerns were relieved.
"I got a call reassuring me that was was still coming on a full ride," Toothman said. "They were very good about getting in touch with me quickly. It was a huge relief."
When Toothman arrived for fall practice he knew a lot of work lay ahead for him to see the field. During high school, he spent only about half his practice time at linebacker. Almost all of his off-field work was devoted to playing quarterback. At 6-foot-0 and 236 pounds, Toothman possessed size and athletic ability, but lagged behind others when it came to technique and grasping the nuances of the position.
"My fundamentals were okay," Toothman said. "The biggest challenge was re-training my body from playing quarterback to playing linebacker. It took a while for me to build my muscle memory to where I was reacting naturally instead of thinking. It took a lot of repeating the drills and a lot of attention to detail."
Toothman was redshirted his freshman year, which he now considers a blessing. As and added bonus, Ball State lacked great depth, allowing Toothman to still travel to the games in case someone got injured. Though he saw no action, Toothman learned a great deal watching on the sidelines.
"There was no way I was going to be able to play that season with how far behind I was," Toothman said. "I got really lucky with being able to go to the away games. I was able to get used to the whole routine and observe everything that went on during the games. There were some great upperclassmen willing to help me out."
By the fall of 2012, Toothman felt he was fully caught up and was ready to make a contribution. He began the season playing on special teams while seeing part-time action at linebacker before a mid-season torn anterior cruciate ligament brought everything to a halt.
"It was against Kent State, I was playing linebacker," Toothman said. "The receiver I was covering cut back and when I tried to adjust my foot got caught in the turf. I knew immediately my knee was blown out.
The injury lingered into this fall. Before preseason, Toothman had to have additional surgery to clean up some scar tissue and didn't fully gain steam until the middle of the year.
His role has been the same as last season, full-time duty on punt coverage and a series or two at linebacker. Toothman finished the regular season with 13 tackles, including a career-high three solo tackles in the Cardinals' 48-27 win at Virginia.
"I feel like I am getting better," Toothman said. "I think I like playing linebacker better than quarterback. Obviously the running and hitting are fun, but the mental challenge is the best part. I love not knowing what the offense is doing and having to diagnose plays and react accordingly."
Toothman - a professional sales major - has two years of eligibility still left and looks forward to getting better. There will be a spot open at strong-side linebacker next year, but he isn't thinking that far ahead.
"The knee injury really derailed things," Toothman said. "Right now my main focus is just to stay healthy and see what happens from there," Toothman said. "It would be great to start and I'm going to work to try and make that happen. I'm happy with the job I've done so far, but I'm not satisfied."