Ball State football is one week into spring practices, and the players are eager to get the 2018 season underway.
After an injury-plagued 2-10 (0-8 MAC) season, head coach Mike Neu said the players are hungry to get back on the field and were even upset with him when he cancelled practice March 20 due to cold weather conditions.
“We won’t allow anyone to make excuses,” Neu said. “As long as we believe it, we have the confidence level that we need, and we know we can accomplish anything we want to.”
Neu said the team believes last season was a fluke, and the players are ready to show everyone they have what it takes to contend for a Mid-American Conference Championship.
“The important thing to emphasize is that it’s a new season,” redshirt junior linebacker Jacob White said. “Last year was last year, so moving forward, all we’re thinking about is what we can do day in and day out here during spring ball.”
These spring practices have allowed the coaching staff to see what the new players can do and how they respond to the flow of college football. The team is permitted 15 spring practices, and Ball State is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
“This is the development stage in my opinion,” Neu said. “You get a chance to develop guys and see them grow from last year to the next year.”
A big change coming to Ball State football next season is the implementation of a 3-4 base defense to better fit its personnel. Last year, the Cardinals operated under a 4-3 defense. The change in defensive schemes will force some defensive ends to move to outside linebacker.
Neu said the change of positions shouldn’t be an issue because the team has versatile linebackers who have good range and can operate well in open space.
Ball State’s defense, which allowed just over 40 points a game last season, will be without star pass rusher Anthony Winbush next year. Winbush finished his senior season with 51 tackles and a team-high 11.5 sacks.
“Anthony was a really special player, and we’re going to miss him,” White said. “With that being said, it’s a next man up mentality. We got good guys that are going to do their job and do it to the best of their ability.”
On the offensive side, redshirt junior Riley Neal will be back under center for the first time since week three of the 2017 season. The Ball State quarterback was sidelined the last nine games with a tibial plateau fracture. Neal said he feels the best he has since last spring.
“It feels really good coming out to practice,” Neal said. “I get excited the night before.”
Neal looked completely normal in practice on March 22. Even in the cold weather, he was on target with his passes.
The Cardinal offense focused on short passes and rushes outside the tackles Thursday. They ran many play-action screens to give their playmakers room to run.
Neal believes with young skill position players like sophomores Justin Hall and Caleb Huntley, this Ball State offense is headed in the right direction.
“We’ve got lots of guys that got a year and an offseason of development, and they’ll be ready to make a big step this season,” Neal said.
Ball State’s rushing attack was a bright spot in the 2017 season as the team averaged 158 rushing yards per game. With Huntley, junior Malik Dunner and redshirt junior James Gilbert all returning in the backfield and Neal back at quarterback, Neu wants his team to have a jack-of-all-trades identity.
“We want to be balanced week in and week out,” Neu said. “We want to be known as a team that can run it and throw it.”
Ball State opens the 2018 season at home against Central Connecticut State on August 30. Following this matchup, Ball State will play back-to-back road games against in-state opponents Notre Dame and Indiana.
The contest in South Bend will be the first time Ball State has played Notre Dame in school history. While Neu appreciates the opportunity to play such large programs, he isn’t looking any further than week one.
“All I care about is us playing Central Connecticut State at home to open the season,” Neu said. “The mindset is always to play at a high level and to play at your best. We respect everybody, but we certainly don’t fear anybody.”
Ball State will play a spring game to conclude spring practices Saturday, April 14 at 11 a.m.