COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
MAC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 6-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rich Skrosky | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Bateman
In Pete Lembo’s first year at the helm, Ball State showed marked improvement on offense. The Cardinals jumped into the middle of the MAC pack in all categories.
While it’s fair to expect Ball State’s no-huddle spread attack to make further gains in 2012 — with seven returning starters on the field — Lembo and offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky spent the offseason hammering home the need for more explosiveness. The Cardinals’ longest run in 2011 (not including a fake punt) went for 28 yards. Just one pass went for more than 51 yards. “The thing we lacked last year was the big plays,” Lembo says.
Lembo saw sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards playing a half-step faster in the spring. He noticed junior slot receiver Jamill Smith and sophomore split end Willie Snead being more elusive. And junior quarterback Keith Wenning, who threw for 2,786 yards and 19 TDs last year and owns 22 consecutive starts, appeared ready to make another jump. “His improvement from freshman to sophomore year speaks for itself,” Lembo says. “The goal for Keith is to put himself in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the conference.”
Wenning will benefit from one of the MAC’s best offensive lines — a veteran group that gave up just 11 sacks. Led by junior Jordan Hansel, a second-team All-MAC selection at guard, every returnee started at least five games last season. Senior Dan Manick, who started all 12 games at tackle, has shifted to center to solidify the middle. Lembo believes senior guard Kitt O’Brien could have an NFL future.
Question marks abound due to the departure of two first-team All-MAC performers — safety Sean Baker (graduation) and outside linebacker Aaron Morris (academics) — along with three linemen who started every game. But when you consider that Ball State ranked next-to-last nationally in total yards and pass efficiency defense, is it really so bad to welcome back only five starters? “Here’s the thing,” Lembo says. “Yes, we did lose some high-profile guys, but we feel like we have better competition over there this year.”
While Ball State sorts out the battles along the line and at the safety spots, senior middle linebacker Travis Freeman (134 tackles, four sacks) and junior defensive tackle Nathan Ollie (six sacks) will lead the way. Both earned second-team All-MAC honors last season. The Cardinals’ top three corners — junior Jeffery Garrett and seniors Jason Pinkston and Armand Dehaney — combined for 26 starts a year ago.
This solid group is led by fourth-year punter Scott Kovanda (43.5-yard average), who was one of 10 Ray Guy Award semifinalists. Senior kicker Steven Schott converted 15-of-20 field goal attempts last year, but made just 2-of-6 from 40-plus yards. Smith might be among the FBS’ smaller players (5'8", 138 pounds), but that makes him hard to catch. He’s back to handle all of the returns.
Lembo admits that his team might have overachieved last year, but he thinks they deserved it after buying in so readily to their new coaches. With virtually the same coaching staff in place for the second year in a row — a first for Ball State’s veterans — the arrow should keep pointing upward as long as the intangibles remain in place. “We won five close games,” Lembo says. “We scored on seven or eight two-minute drives. We were the least-penalized team in the conference. There were a lot of good signs, but we know we’re not out of the woods yet.”