Three years ago the career trajectory for Ben Holt may have not quite looked liked this.
An undersized senior at Bowling Green High School, Holt graduated and enrolled at Western Kentucky where he joined the football team – as a walk-on – to play for his dad Nick Holt V (the team’s defensive coordinator at the time) and alongside his brother Nick Holt VI (the team’s starting middle linebacker).
When Western fans looked up Saturday night in Louisville, the youngest Holt had just made a career-high 10 tackles to go along with a sack in what was an announcement to the world that Ben Holt may be about to have a breakout season.
“He’s kinda like the underdog story,” friend and roommate and WKU defensive lineman Heath Wiggins said. “He came in as a walk-on and he worked hard to get where he’s at and now he’s the captain of the team.”
Holt began his career 20 pounds lighter in 2015 and watched in the wings as linebackers like his older brother, TJ McCollum, Keith Brown and Joel Iyiegbuniwe ran the show. Holt even had fewer tackles in 2017 (34) than he did in 2016 (39) while playing behind a future pro in Iyiegbuniwe.
But while Holt was waiting his turn during those past seasons he was also learning and growing, enough to be awarded a scholarship in the spring of 2017 and enough to be chosen as a team captain for this year.
Now there’s no doubt as to whom the rest of the Hilltoppers look up to.
“Two things – he loves football. He loves football so, so much. And he’s so passionate,” WKU linebackers coach Maurice Crum said. “Sometimes when we first got here he was just all over the place, wild and passionate.
“Now that he’s kind of learned how to harness that he’s kind of a spark plug and he brings the energy. That’s how our defense plays because they kind of follow (Holt’s) way. Also with him being voted a captain he has a great amount of respect for how he handles himself.”
Holt registered 10 stops Saturday, three more than his previous career high. He’s on pace for a 70+ tackle season (and that doesn’t include any sort of postseason action) and the site Pro Football Focus graded Holt as Conference USA's top linebacker over the weekend.
Perhaps more impressive is Holt’s ability to recognize the plays he didn’t make – and diagnose those mistakes during the course of the game.
“(Holt) came to the sideline (Saturday) on those first two runs after the second half – (Louisville) got a 15-yard run and a 20-yard run,” WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White said. “Holt told me, basically, ‘I did this, I should’ve done that.’ As I’m drawing it up as a coordinator it just makes it a lot more clear.
“They came back to those two plays later and they gained two or three yards. Just that adjustment itself it saved us a first down and gave us the opportunity to get the ball back. That’s what it came down to – it was clutch, actually, to have that communication.”
What has made Holt’s rise to prominence all that more impressive is the honest assessment that the redshirt-junior isn’t the fastest or biggest or quickest linebacker on Saturdays – or even in his own locker room. His work ethic and attitude, however, is second to none.
That’s gone a long way in Holt’s rise to starting linebacker alongside senior Masai Whyte.
“He’s that tough, scrappy guy. People respect the heck out of him,” Crum said. “In my experiences people respect you for who you are. (Holt’s) size, his speed, none of that matters because you turn on the tape and watch the kid play and he’s an animal out there.”
No better example of that mindset was more apparent than Saturday when Western’s defense was giving Louisville fits. Holt was all over the field with his 10 stops – 1 1/2 for a loss – and a sack of speedy, dual-threat quarterback Jawon Pass.
It was a coming out party of sorts for Holt, although it wasn’t all that surprising to those in Bowling Green who have seen the linebacker perfect his craft for so many months now.
“It’s just been awesome to see him grow, see him learn, see him start to take notes, see him start to ask questions – text the crap out of me, call the crap out of me, send me pictures,” Crum said. “He articulates just like we do.
“Having a guy like that down on the field who can see and come off and say, ‘I saw this, that was that play.’ He digs deep in the film room. He’ll find the plays from two years ago just to come ask you a question.”
Western Kentucky has one of the more youthful rosters in all of college football and that makes Holt’s presence as a leader all that more invaluable. And the fact Holt has done all this after his father moved on to become defensive coordinator at Purdue after publicly pushing to become WKU’s next head coach makes Holt’s commitment to the Hilltoppers an admirable mission.
That mission is nowhere near complete, however, as the best is still yet to come from Ben Holt.
“On and off the field he’s a coach,” Wiggins said. “On the field he’s coaching everybody up and off the field he’s coaching up the younger guys, telling ‘em to do right and stay out of trouble.
“He cuts up and has fun with everybody. He’s friends with everybody. I can’t tell you one person that isn’t friends with him and he’s not friendly to, so he’s a great guy on and off the field.”
Watch Ben Holt fight through this block before making the strip pic.twitter.com/Z7GUH4ZPTE— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Holt, waiting, watching, sack pic.twitter.com/HMQluKug1a— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
Holt recognizing the running back splitting out as a safety valve and closes quick pic.twitter.com/3fzmwDOXEI— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) September 16, 2018
The Conference USA Team of the Week on defense for Week 3 pic.twitter.com/zOh4AU3TuE— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 20, 2018
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop