On just the second day of training camp, the atmosphere at the Scheumann Family Indoor Practice Facility felt different. Although the Cardinals weren’t in full pads and were encouraged not to go full throttle to prevent injury, Ball State football was playing as physically as allowed.
Cheers erupted from respective units when the offense or defense made a big play, defensive lineman exploded through crash pads held by assistants on the sidelines and every one-on-one matchup was highly competitive between wide receivers and cornerbacks.
After the loss of multiple All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) team members, starting quarterback John Paddock and the failure to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2019, a hungry atmosphere surrounds Ball State Football.
Head coach Mike Neu expected this when the Cardinals returned to the turf after the offseason, but hoped they would keep the same energy throughout the rest of camp. Involved in the game of football nearly his whole life and going into his eighth season as Ball State’s head honcho, Neu realizes the “all football all the time” mentality of training camp can be draining after the initial excitement wears off.
Three weeks later, just days ahead of their week one matchup against the University of Kentucky, that hungry atmosphere remained.
“I really like the look in our guys' eyes right now,” Neu said.
At the MAC Football Kickoff July 20, Neu seemingly put an end to any question surrounding the Cardinals’ quarterback situation when he announced redshirt senior transfer Layne Hatcher is set to begin the season under center. The eighth-year head coach said the decision to name Hatcher as the week one starter came down to his experience, having started the past four seasons at Arkansas State and Texas State.
“I've seen a lot of football, I’ve seen a lot of coverages, I've seen a lot of offenses, I’ve seen the goods, the bads and everything in between,” Hatcher said. “I've had great years [and] I've had bad years, and I think that helps me keep a level mindset and helps me not panic in situations that come up.”
Hatcher is the all-time leading passer in Arkansas high school football history, a three-time participant in the Manning Passing Academy and initially committed to the University of Alabama, where he redshirted under future NFL QBs Jalen Hurts, Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa.
With 10,080 career passing yards and 84 career passing touchdowns as a four-year starter between his time at Arkansas State and Texas State, Hatcher has joined his fourth collegiate program at Ball State. Hatcher said he was able to weather the storm quickly and focus on competing for a starting spot by playing under pressure his whole career.
However, Hatcher knows his position as QB1 isn’t set in stone either.
“If I told you that being named the starter made a difference to me I'd be lying,” Hatcher said. “If you're gonna be a good player in college football or any level, every day better be a competition to you whether you're the guy or not.”
Kiael Kelly is still competing for a starting spot at quarterback, and Neu said the redshirt sophomore will be used in certain packages regardless, and should always prepare to be ready to enter a game. While Kelly said he’s always seen hunger in Ball State football, he feels this season’s team has a different energy around it, where everyone is practicing to earn the opportunity to make an impact.
“It’s my job to push [Hatcher] to be a better quarterback, but just because now I'm named number two, the work doesn't stop,” Kelly said. “My goal is to be number one, so until I'm there, I'm gonna keep working.”
While Kiael Kelly initially seemed to be his only competitor, freshman Kaiden Semonza has been getting practice time with the first-team offense as of late.
“I wanted to come in here and start,” Semonza said. “I’m sure that’s everybody’s goal, and if it’s not, you shouldn’t be playing the sport.”
Although he wasn’t with the Cardinals during their disappointing 2022 season, throughout his short time at Ball State, he’s quickly picked up on the squad’s appetite for success. That’s how Semonza said the three quarterbacks create a healthy competition for a starting spot, balancing personal goals with the good of the team in mind.
“If it’s Layne, great. If it’s Kiael, great. If it’s me, great,” Semonza said. “The main goal is to win games.”
No matter who is under center during the 2023 campaign, the man snapping them the pigskin should remain constant. Junior center Ethan Crowe is coming off an All-MAC Second Team season and has started in 21 consecutive games on a Ball State offensive line that Neu called the most underrated unit of the program.
Although Crowe finds himself on the 2023 Outland Trophy watchlist, an award given annually to the best interior offensive lineman in college football, he pays no mind to the praise he and the players to his left and right receive.
“We didn’t come in to do this for the recognition, we came here to hit people,” Crowe said.
With redshirt senior Damon Kaylor also earning All-MAC Second Team honors last season and junior Corey Stewart receiving praise in practice, the Cardinals’ protection is the most experienced wearing the red, white and black. Crowe said the offensive line as a whole has stepped up as leaders to help the litany of transfers who may find themselves in key roles on the offense.
“This is a family here, so we're taking anyone who comes in, and we're showing them Ball State culture,” Crowe said. “But we hit the ground running, so they gotta keep up with us. We're gonna help them on their way but they gotta keep up.”
Another anchor of Ball State’s 2022 offense, redshirt sophomore tight end Brady Hunt is set to return with high hopes as well. The former QB turned tight end finds himself on the John Mackey Award watch list coming off an All-MAC First Team 2022 season, but even he isn’t approaching the upcoming season as a guaranteed success.
“We can't really count on anything that we did last year, so [we’re] just going out there and playing like we have something to prove every day,” Hunt said.
Tasked with addressing the loss of All-MAC First Team running back Carson Steele and All-MAC Second Team wide receiver Jayshon Jackson, Neu quickly brought in a proven difference-maker at tailback in the form of fellow All-MAC First Team member, Marquez Cooper. The former Golden Flash, who finished second in the conference in rushing yards last season, said Ball State reached out to him about an hour after he entered the transfer portal and immediately knew it was the right place for him.
He said he “fell in love” with the Cardinals’ offensive system that places a heavy emphasis on run plays and RPOs, and having played against them at Kent State, it made it easier to adjust to a new program. Cooper said he wants to prove that he is an “every down back” and help bring a championship to Muncie.
“I'm always hungry, [and] I always got a chip on my shoulder from being doubted all my life,” Cooper said. “You can never be complacent because I got guys that would love to take my carries, [and] they'd love to take my spot.”
While his ground game is his best attribute, Cooper is set to lead a running back unit that Neu is looking to continue to keep involved in the passing game, as has been done in the past. As for the wide receivers, Neu sought out speed above all traits when recruiting in the offseason.
Perhaps the quickest of a plethora of transfers at wideout is redshirt senior Ahmad Edwards. While the Jacksonville State transfer had never been to Muncie before his summer visit, he said it wasn’t much of a decision to choose Ball State as his new destination.
“When I came here, it just felt like home,” Edwards said.
While veteran wide receivers helped him get comfortable in the program over the summer, once he started working with the Cardinals on the gridiron, Edwards and Hatcher worked together to pick up on how the offense would approach things going forward.
“He broke it down and just made everything so much simpler, so once I started getting out here I could play faster and not have to think,” Edwards said.
Edwards said this isn’t the first time he’s come into a program going through a quarterback competition, but said it hasn’t affected the wide receiver room one way or another, expressing comfort with both Hatcher and Kelly.
Quick comfort seemed to be a reoccurring theme when it came to transfers at wideout, as junior Ty Robinson felt his purpose was realized at a higher level as a Cardinal than his previous home.
“I really believe I'm here for a reason,” the University of Colorado transfer said.
Both Edwards and Robinson are hoping to help bring explosiveness to the Cardinals’ offense by getting open downfield and in the red zone as much as possible.
“Everybody wants to be the big play guy,” Edwards said. “I feel like it’s going to make everyone in the receiver room’s level go up even higher.”
While Edwards prides himself on his speed, Robinson specializes in athleticism and jumping ability. With relative uncertainty at wide receiver, Edwards said everyone is operating under the mindset that their spot isn’t safe, something he said breeds healthy competition within the group.
“Everybody wants to do something and put on for their family, but at the end of the day, we're all brothers on one team,” Edwards said.
With a dependable duo at tight end, multiple running backs factored into the offense and wide receivers eager for the chance to break out, both coaches and players alike feel the Cardinals’ offense has the potential to be more explosive than ever.
“If you have guys that are going out there and giving it their all every day, it’s just gonna bring everybody else around them to a higher level,” Hunt said.
The Cardinals open up their season squaring off against two Southeastern Conference (SEC) programs as they travel to Lexington, Kentucky, in week one to face the University of Kentucky before heading to Athens, Georgia, to battle two-time reigning National Champion and No. 1 ranked University of Georgia.
“It's a challenging start to the schedule, but we'll embrace that and we'll work our tail off and we'll get ourselves ready to go,” Neu said. “We just got to execute at a high level, [and] we got to do the little things extremely well.”
Potts said it doesn’t get much better than opening the season against Kentucky and Georgia. He said Ball State is going to face a different kind of competition and skill in those games that will prepare them well for MAC regular season games.
With MAC schools rarely selling out their stadiums, junior defensive back Jordan Riley said he is looking forward to the experience of playing in a full stadium to open the season against Kentucky and Georgia.
Graduate student linebacker Clayton Coll, who experienced SEC football first-hand when Ball State opened up against the University of Tennessee last season, said a lot of Cardinals are close friends or even best friends, so walking out onto a football field whether it is night or noon is something he cherishes.
“The feeling of walking out in a football stadium in August, or in September, you can't match it,” Coll said.
Neu said developing team chemistry, such as that displayed by the linebackers group, with the mix of Cardinal mainstays and transfers comes down to one approach: love.
“We gotta get to know one another so that when we are in some of those critical situations and games, you're really invested in the other guy,” Neu said. “You won't let somebody fail if you love them.”
The mission statement for Ball State football in 2023 is simple: return to heights not reached since 2020 and win a MAC Championship.
“If we want to accomplish something great, it takes a lot of sacrifice,” Neu said. “We have to make sure the intensity level and competitive juice are at an all-time high every single day to have a chance for that to happen.”
When asked if the 2023 campaign is a defining one for the Cardinals, Coll said any season could be defined as such, and began to reflect on his time at Ball State.
“I think there's a lot that we've left on the table,” Coll said. “It hurts to say it.”
Coll spoke about the ups and downs he and the program has experienced throughout his career, finishing 5-7 his first season, winning the MAC Championship, the Arizona Sun Bowl and finishing No. 24 in the final AP poll his second season, finishing 6-7 with a loss in the Camellia Bowl his third season, and then another 5-7 season in his most recent.
He thought about specific losses that hurt the most from that time period. A last-minute loss on a game-winning field goal from Northern Illinois in 2021, who went on to win the MAC title later that season. A one-possession loss to Toledo in 2022, who also captured the conference crown that season.
“It's like we're a few games away from this being a totally different career,” Coll said. “I want to leave this place with a legacy for these younger guys to look up to. I want to be a multi-time MAC champion. I want to be a multi-time bowl game winner because not very many guys in this program can say that, and not very many people in college football can say that. I just want to leave this place better than I found it.”
Ball State is set to face off against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky, at Noon Sept. 3, where the spread has the Cardinals as 26.5-point underdogs.