2017 looks to be a year of transition for Ball State football.
The Cardinals lost their five top tacklers from last season, lost their top two receivers and were picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference.
Just don’t tell junior quarterback Riley Neal this isn’t their year.
“The goal is to win the MAC Championship,” Neal said. “That’s been our goal since the first day Coach Neu got here and that’s never going to change.”
Neal, entering his second full year as a starter in head coach Mike Neu’s system, is one of Ball State’s most experienced players and brings a sense of consistency and confidence into the huddle.
“He’s looked really good, just his progress from a year ago this time to right now mentally,” Neu said. “Knowing the offense, knowing the players around him, running the show. He seems, as you would expect, much more confident. He’s not trying to learn an all-new offensive system again like he did in his first two years at Ball State.”
How quickly the Cardinals’ younger players develop, however, will likely be the difference between Ball State’s first bowl appearance since the 2013-14 season and another winter at home.
Ball State featured a run-heavy offense last season, finishing third in the MAC with 220.0 yards per game, and figures to feature a similar look this season with the return of junior running back James Gilbert.
Gilbert tied for the conference lead with 12 rushing touchdowns, was second with 111.0 yards per game, and his 1,332 rushing yards were the 28th most in the country.
“[Gilbert] couldn’t care less about last year,” Neu said. “He’s chomping at the bit to get back out on the field and win football games. That’s all he cares about, that’s his mindset, that’s his focus.”
Gilbert will run behind an experienced offensive line that returns three players who started all 12 games — redshirt senior Vinnie Palazeti, redshirt senior Pat Maloney and redshirt junior Alex Joss — as well as redshirt junior Kaden Booker, who started six games.
“Coach [Kyle] DeVan’s been moving guys around playing different positions just in case something happens,” Gilbert said. “We lost Drake Miller and Steve Bell but the line’s looking good so far, didn’t miss a beat.”
The focus on the run was a slight surprise to anyone expecting Neu to draw more on his background as a head coach in the pass-happy Arena Football League and a quarterbacks coach for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, a team known for its diverse passing game. But back in spring practice, Neu started moving his tight ends out wide, and Gilbert says the running backs are also working on the passing game after last season’s backs combined for just 34 receptions.
And for all of Gilbert’s work in the run game, he only caught one pass.
“Coach emphasised all spring, all camp getting us out on routes so we can get the ball and do what we do,” Gilbert said. “The quarterback’s going to be looking for us on checkdowns and stuff like that so it’s going to be good to have all the skill players available in the pass game.”
Ball State’s offense will need the tight ends and running backs to step up with the loss of their top two receivers.
KeVonn Mabon broke the Cardinals’ career record for receptions in his final collegiate season, and heir-apparent Damon Hazelton, Jr. transferred to Virginia Tech. The pair combined for 1,477 yards on 136 receptions with seven touchdowns, at least half of the team’s production in all three categories.
“It’s created a lot of opportunities for our receivers,” Neu said. “Not just guys like Jordan Hogue and Corey Lacanaria that are seniors, but our young players. There’s a lot of young players who came in here thinking … ‘I’m going to get myself on the field this year,’ and that’s the competitive spirit that you want to see out of your guys.”
Though it’s unclear just who will step up as the Cardinals’ leading receiver this year, there will be plenty of opportunities for more inexperienced players to earn the role, and Neal’s been working on his chemistry with them.
“I think Riley’s done a great job on his own, not only when he was with them during the summer when they were working out running routes and throwing the ball, but even during training camp here,” Neu said. “Just getting to know those guys, get on the same page, him studying tape on his own just to watch this guy’s consistency as a route runner on this respective route and so he’s really done a good job that way.”
So while the receiving corps will have a new look, there’s enough experience returning on offense that Neu seemed confident his team will score points. Whether they win games, however, will depend on the revamped defense.
Even though the Cardinals return just four starters from a defense that allowed 470.3 yards per game, the 13th-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision, first-year defensive coordinator David Elson isn’t settling for a transition year, either.
“We want to do our part to help us win the MAC,” Elson said. “I don’t get too caught up in trying to predict rankings and numbers and where we’re going to finish. It’s just about us evaluating us and saying ‘how well are we executing our defense?’ If we do that, then those results, numbers and where we rank will all take care of itself.”
Elson will build his defense around a solid defensive line group, including senior All-MAC Third Team defensive end Anthony Winbush and senior defensive tackles John Swisher and team captain Kevin Willis.
Combined, those three accounted for 48 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and two forced fumbles last year, leading Neu to say the defensive line is “the strength of our defense and even our football team.”
In the secondary, the Cardinals return junior cornerback Marc Walton, who finished fourth in the MAC with 14 passes defended, and senior cornerback David Moore, who has 101 tackles in his Ball State career. Walton says the defense has been improving, particularly the younger guys.
“You can see people getting better every day as we’re working and progressing,” Walton said. “We’re learning the defense and just being out here every day working together, we’re coming together more as a team, more as a defense.”
Still, the new linebacking corps remains a question for Ball State entering the season.
Linebackers Sean Wiggins, Aaron Taylor and Zach Ryan were among the Cardinals’ top five tacklers last season, but all three graduated. Redshirt sophomore Jacob White, a captain, and redshirt junior Damon Singleton are filling in two of their spots but neither has ever started for Ball State.
“Even though we’ve got some guys that maybe haven’t started a ton of games here, we feel great about where we’re at just as an overall group at linebacker and I know those guys will get the job done,” Neu said.
The biggest change for the defense this year? Constant communication.
“On the field, you hear everybody yelling, everybody yelling calls because that’s what we need to do in order to win games,” Winbush said. “I really think that’s something I really noticed a lot in the consistency, which is us making plays.”
As the final days of preparation wind down, White says he’s prepared to show the progress that the young defense made throughout the summer.
“We’ll see what happens on Saturday, that’ll be the true test to see how things went this offseason,” White said. “We believe 100 percent that we’ve done everything that we needed to do to put ourselves in the best position to come out on top on Saturday and for the rest of the season.”
Ball State opens the 2017-18 season on the road against the University of Illinois on Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. EST.