Then-junior running back Malik Dunner runs past Central Connecticut State players during Ball State's game against the Blue Devils Aug. 31, 2018, at Scheumann Stadium. Dunner had 51 rushing yards in the game. Paige Grider, DN
What to watch as Ball State Football's season draws nearer
Classes are back in session, training camp is finished and the 2019 Ball State Football season is just over a week away. As opening day approaches, here are a few things to keep in mind about this year’s Cardinals.
The gang’s all here
Ball State has 17 returning starters from 2018: eight on offense, nine on defense. Included in the Cardinals’ long list of experience are all five of the team’s All-Mid-American Conference players from 2018. Having to fill minimal starting positions, given all 17 continue to start, has given head coach Mike Neu confidence in who he has on the field.
Ball State Football schedule
Aug. 31 - vs. Indiana*
Sep. 7 - vs. Fordham
Sep. 14 - vs. Florida Atlantic
Sep. 21 - @ NC State
Sep. 28 - BYE
Oct. 5 - @ Northern Illinois
Oct. 12 - @ Eastern Michigan
Oct. 19 - vs. Toledo
Oct. 26 - vs. Ohio
Nov. 5 - @ Western Michigan
Nov. 16 - vs. Central Michigan
Nov. 23 - @ Kent State
Nov. 29 - vs. Miam (Ohio)
*Game at Lucas Oil Stadium
“When you have that many guys that have played in football games, imagine the confidence level,” Neu said. “It helps because now you don’t have to count on as many younger players in your program to step in and perform.”
Along with experience, Neu and the players expressed how important team chemistry will be this season. Not only do returning players know their job, but they know their teammates’ jobs as well, making for a smoother transition into the new season.
“When everybody does their job individually, in the grand scheme, it works for us,” redshirt senior linebacker Jacob White said. “Having older guys and guys who have played that understand definitely helps. Then that same culture trickles down to the younger guys as well, so it’s contagious.”
Senior wide receiver Malik Dunner said having more upperclassmen only helps the team in the long run.
“You can’t replace experience,” Dunner said. “You can bring in a whole bunch of talented guys, but those experienced guys — Man, they know all the little things.”
One last ride
The Cardinals have 15 seniors on their roster heading into the 2019 season, just five fewer than the previous two seasons combined. Neu said this group of seniors defines what it means to be a role model and a leader.
“Every team is different,” Neu said. “When you come to training camp, that’s what you want to find out: What’s this football team going to be like? What’s the heartbeat going to be like? What’s the chemistry in the locker room going to be like?
“When you have players return, they’re automatically looked up to. Players that are young come in, and they’re like, ‘That’s how I’m supposed to work in practice. That’s how I’m supposed to work in the weight room. That’s how I’m supposed to take care of business in the classroom.’”
This is the same group that came up with this year’s team slogan, “Out the mud.” Neu described the team as being stuck these past few years, and if it wants to break free, it has to work together and maximize the details.
White said his senior season will mean a little more to him, and he’s hoping to bring Ball State a MAC Championship by the end of his final year of college football.
“When you’re a freshman and you’re younger, maybe you don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it,” White said. “Maybe you don’t understand the amount of preparation yet. The more you’re around, naturally the more it means to you.”
Dunner said he couldn’t believe his last training camp practice was already done, and he’s going to make the most of the next few months.
“It’s definitely do or die. We’ve been through it all the past three years I’ve been here,” Dunner said. “I had to do my senior speech the other day, and I was thinking about how fast it went by. Every day is a ticking time bomb for me, and I’m just trying to attack every day as best as possible.”
The next man up
Riley Neal and James Gilbert departed from Ball State last spring, each with one more year of eligibility left. This left holes in the Cardinals’ starting quarterback and running back positions. However, the team isn’t worried because the next man has stepped up.
“For us, this is our team, and we got to figure out what we can do with what we have,” said redshirt junior quarterback Drew Plitt. “We’ve done that. We’re very skilled and very talented. I think we’re going to be a great team and have a lot of fun playing.”
Plitt has experience under center. He started three games in 2017 after starting the year as the team’s fourth-string quarterback. He came back as the second quarterback on the depth chart in 2018 and started the final three games of the season. This year, Plitt said he’s getting used to being top dog.
“It definitely feels more natural now than it did two years ago and even last year,” Plitt said. “I think the big difference is just coming into the season knowing that [I’m the starter]. The guys are responding great with me. I love them. They’ve helped me out a lot, and I’m helping them as much as I can.”
Junior Caleb Huntley has assumed the starting running back role, a position he carried for the final seven games of 2017 while Gilbert was injured. Huntley rushed for more than 1,000 yards that year as a freshman. His sophomore season, however, was cut short due to injury.
As long as everyone stays healthy, Dunner said this season is the Cardinals’ to lose.
“Our team’s going to be good this year,” Dunner said. “I think it’s all there, it’s just for us to go do it.”