Riley Neal didn't participate in spring practice due to surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, but he was still putting in work.   

Standing behind the quarterbacks, the junior quarterback tested a different part of his game –­ the mental aspect. He went through the motions, going through the reads as if he were in the drill.

“Whenever the quarterbacks were together I would stand behind them and mimic a drop and show where I would go with the ball if I was going,” Neal said. “Just a lot of mental stuff, but I got a lot more time to do that than physical.”   

It was different viewpoint for the guy who started 20 games in his first two seasons at Ball State, but it was one that helped him regain his focus and motivate him going into preseason camp.

With just over three weeks separating Ball State and its first game against the University of Illinois, Neal’s back on the field, looking to help improve on the Cardinals 4-8 finish just a season ago. 

And as the Cardinals enter the 2017 season, he's had one focus.

“We talk about finishing a lot,” Neal said. “Finishing drives, finishing games, finishing plays. It’s kind of that more than anything.”

That focal point makes sense coming off a year where Ball State lost half of its games by 10 points or less, three of which the Cardinals were leading at halftime. 

For Neu, what’s the biggest focal point for the 6-foot-6, 225 pound quarterback moving forward? Situational football.

In the offseason, Neu said that Neal studied game tape, focusing on what he feels comfortable with and does well in the pocket. 

“You know he learned from some situations that he was in the first time in college,” Neu said. “I think just making good decisions and knowing that [Neal] doesn’t have to make something special happen on every play, just use the supporting cast.”   

A big piece of that supporting cast is going to be junior running back James Gilbert. Gilbert, who is on both the 2017 Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award watch lists, is coming off of a 12 touchdown, 1,322 rushing yard season – the fourth most single season yards by a Ball State player.   

That along with an offensive line that returns three starters in seniors Vinnie Palezeti and Pat Maloney along with redshirt junior Alex Joss, the biggest question is going to be on the young receiving core that has only seen a combined 21 career starts from seniors Jordan Hogue (10) and Corey Lacanaria (9) and redshirt junior Devin Reece (2).

This year, Neal won’t have the receiving core consisting of record-breaker KeVonn Mabon or last year’s touchdown reception leader Damon Hazeltion Jr., who transferred to Virginia Tech this offseason. But Ball State head coach Mike Neu isn’t holding back his expectations for the Yorktown native saying that he’s expecting Neal “to take a big step this year.”   

After winning one game, excluding his win against Eastern Michigan where he replaced senior Jack Milas, as a starter his freshman year and adapting to a new system under then-first year head coach Neu in 2016, this is the first time Neal enters a season truly established in the Cardinals offense.   

Not only is Neal more settled in with the offense, but he’s more comfortable with Neu, a former Ball State quarterback himself.   

“I think once he learned that when I do get on him, I’m the type of guy that lets it go fast,” Neu said. “I think he knows that now. … He’s mentally tough, and you know he can take that and I think we’ve come a long way and he’s not afraid to bark back at me a little bit now, which I like.”   

Ball State opens its against Illinois on Sept. 2 in Champaign, Illinois before returning to Muncie the following week to face off against the University of Alabama Birmingham on Sept. 9.