Amidst a sea of change, familiar faces chime in on Ball State football's outlook after 2024 spring game

<p>Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly warming up before kickoff against Kentucky Sept. 2. Kelly rushed for 21 yards as the Cardinals utilized him for Run-Pass Option plays in the 44-14 loss. Daniel Kehn, DN</p>

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly warming up before kickoff against Kentucky Sept. 2. Kelly rushed for 21 yards as the Cardinals utilized him for Run-Pass Option plays in the 44-14 loss. Daniel Kehn, DN

Kiael Kelly set the tone for Ball State football’s first event in front of fans since November 25, 2023, when he completed a handful of cartwheels at midfield of Scheumann Stadium right as the Cardinals’ spring game began. The rising redshirt junior quarterback said he had been longing to play in front of a crowd since the final buzzer sounded against Miami (OH) back in November. 

 “Everybody plays well when you're loose,” Kelly said. “I’m just trying to get that fun environment out here as much as I can.” 

The event was for family and friends just as much as players and coaches, as after the final bout of 11-on-11 finished, those in attendance spilled onto the turf to greet their player or coach of choice. Once rising senior Keionté Newson broke away from his circle of supporters, he talked about how excited he was to break the seven-week cycle of workouts and practices. 

“It feels like we’ve been working in silence and in the dark for so long, but today we’re out in the sunshine,” Newson said. “The fans just give you that extra juice and make you want to do a little bit more.” 

New-look defense

The linebacker is one of only a handful of returning Cardinal starters from the 2023 season, evolving from aspiring leader to head of the table for Ball State’s defense during the course of the last campaign. Although he now sits as the undisputed captain of the defense, Newson said he’s still learning how to embrace his role and do it the right way. 

“I’m just letting myself know that I can do it,” Newson said. 

As far as his on-field abilities go, Newson said his biggest areas of growth are in his mobility and motor, wanting to make sure he can give his all for 100 percent of each game. Though he admitted he finished the 2023 season banged up, one thing Newson has never lacked is energy.

This isn’t something he has to make an effort to bring to the Cardinals, it’s just who he is. 

“I wake up at six o’clock in the morning, and I just have juice all the time,” Newson said. “I just try to be myself.”

Junior linebacker Keionte Newson scores a touchdown against Indiana State Sept. 16 at Scheumann Stadiium. Newson had eight total tackles in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Through this new-look defense, Newson said communication runs through the safeties, all of which are new starters for Ball State. The linebacker said communication has been a struggle at times throughout early practices, particularly with pre-snap and post-snap adjustments.

“It’s been rough at times,” Newson said.

Citing his experience as defensive coordinator for the 2018 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Champions Northern Illinois, Neu said new defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles has been able to gain support from the Cardinal defense despite introducing many new aspects to their scheme.

Unlike his “brother” relationship with former defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton, Newson said his relationship with Knowles is more akin to “father-son.” The biggest motto Knowles has been preaching to Newson through early camp is that the game is not as fast as Newson is. 

Transfer portal madness

On the other side of the ball, Jared Elliott has assumed primary playcalling duties from former co-offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch while still retaining his role as tight ends coach. Rising junior tight end Tanner Koziol said Elliott’s biggest addition as primary play caller is the energy he brings to every situation. 

“He's gonna fire you up and he's gonna rip you a new one when you're doing something wrong, but he's gonna love you after,” Koziol said. “He is the perfect definition of a hardcore football coach. I've never seen someone's love for the game bleed out on people so much.” 

For a time, it seemed that Koziol wouldn’t be at Ball State’s spring game, as he entered the transfer portal soon after the conclusion of the 2023 season. In fact, Koziol even committed to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)’s Louisville for a short time. 

However, Koziol said despite his admiration for Louisville’s coaching staff and recent success, his family’s proximity to Muncie and the feeling of “home” Ball State evokes inspired him to change his mind.

“It’s damn near like speed dating,” Koziol said. “I love coach Elliott, and I love coach Neu. My heart kept me here, and I think it was the right decision to stay for me.” 

Sophomore tight end Tanner Koziol preparing for warm ups against Kentucky Sept. 2 at Kroger Field. Koziol had 66 yeards total in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Neu acknowledged nearly losing Koziol and former All-MAC offensive lineman Ethan Crowe, chalking it up to the nature of current college athletics. While most of the Cardinals’ key losses to the transfer portal have already occurred, such as former All-MAC running back Marquez Cooper and former All-MAC offensive lineman Corey Stewart, Neu said the next transfer portal window opens April 15. 

“Obviously every night will be uneasy for me when I go to bed, like, ‘Are we going to be looking the same tomorrow?’” Neu said. “You just got to try to focus and tell the guys, ‘We’ve just got to be where our feet are.’ That's all I can do on this field, and I love the guys that we have.”

The ninth-year head coach said some new faces that stood out in spring camp were rising graduate student defensive lineman Riley Tolsma (Hillsdale transfer), rising junior pass rusher Justin Thomas (UIndy transfer) and rising junior wide receiver Justin Bowick (Eastern Illinois). Those who Neu is looking to step up as veterans of the program included rising sophomore offensive lineman Taran Tyo, rising graduate student offensive lineman Jon Mucciolo and Crowe.  

Quarterback competition…again?

Koziol’s presence as a former All-MAC tight end and 6-foot, 7-inch frame makes him a favorable target for whoever is under center. Although it seemed cut and dry that Kelly would return to the QB1 role he filled for the final six games of the 2023 season, it was rising redshirt freshman Kadin Semonza taking the majority of Ball State’s first team reps in the spring game. 

A quarterback competition is all too familiar to the Cardinals’ program, as last preseason saw Kelly and Semonza duke it out with the since-graduated Layne Hatcher. All three men earned starts last season, but Kelly garnered the most success with three of Ball State’s four wins coming with the Tampa, Florida, native assuming control of the offense.

“Competition just strengthens both of them,” Koziol said. “Whatever person comes out being QB1 will only be QB1 because the other person pushed him to be.” 

Kelly said he has been approaching and preparing for each day as if he was the starter, the same mentality he had last season prior to earning the QB1 role. Neu said the biggest benefits for both Semonza and Kelly in the spring game and throughout spring camp has been their ability to work with both the first and second unit, familiarizing themselves with every piece of the offense. 

Cards vs Bulldogs_10.jpg
Freshman Quarterback Kadin Semonza throws the ball during pregame warmups against Georgia Sept. 9 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. Semonza passed 55 yards in the second half of the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Kelly rushed for more yards than he passed last season, and as the 2023 campaign came to a close, he said improving his passing abilities was going to be his biggest focus in the offseason. While he is pleased with his progression, he realized he still has to improve in a key aspect of his game most may not associate with high-level passers: footwork.

“Without your feet, you can't really generate power,” Kelly explained. “I'm learning that you can have your feet under you, but you gotta have them in the right places to be able to transfer your weight and have a good accurate pass. It starts from the ground up when throwing a football.” 

Along with Koziol, another familiar face returns to Ball State’s receiving core in rising redshirt junior Qian Magwood. However, Ball State’s biggest (both literal and figurative) receiving threats may just be the duo of rising redshirt junior Ty Robinson and Bowick. 

Each standing at 6-foot, 3-inches or taller, Kelly said the trio of Robinson, Bowick and Koziol is the biggest group of receivers he has ever thrown to. Koziol said it isn’t just the height of this three-headed monster that makes them effective, it’s their relative quickness, too. 

Koziol said his itch to return to game-like football was scratched during the Cardinals’ spring game, but now Ball State football takes a break from organized practices until the early summer. In terms of the next game, that’ll have to wait until the 2024 season officially kicks off Saturday, Sept. 7 in Scheumann Stadium against Missouri State.

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at or on X @KyleSmedley_


More from The Daily

Loading Recent Classifieds...