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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
#74 Ball State
MAC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 15-10 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rich Skrosky | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Bateman
While Northern Illinois rolled all the way to the Orange Bowl on the strength of the MAC’s best offense, it’s important to remember that Ball State ranked second in the league in points and total yards. More important, the Cardinals welcome back all of their skill position players from the group that rolled up 33.6 points and 457.2 yards per game. That includes three first-team All-MAC targets in junior split end Willie Snead (89 catches, 1,148 yards, nine TDs), senior slot Jamill Smith (69-706) and senior tight end Zane Fakes (57-461).
Senior quarterback Keith Wenning, who has started 34 of the last 35 games, has made dramatic leaps in each of the last two seasons. Can the second-team All-MAC quarterback challenge NIU’s Jordan Lynch this year? “He’s the whole package,” says third-year head coach Pete Lembo. “He’s a very grounded kid. He’s poised to have a very nice year.”
One of the reasons Wenning might not eclipse last season’s 3,095 yards and 24 touchdowns is Lembo’s insistence on a balanced attack. Ball State boasts a terrific blend of power and speed in the backfield with 230-pound junior Jahwan Edwards (1,410 yards, 14 TDs) and 184-pound sophomore Horactio Banks (586 yards, four TDs).
So what’s the potential catch this year? The Cardinals must replace four linemen who combined for 137 career starts — most notably all-league tackle Austin Holtz. Senior guard Jordan Hansel (6'4", 326), a third-team All-MAC selection, is the lone returnee. Ball State doesn’t have many upperclassmen to fill the gaps, but Lembo likes the fact that the Cardinals just signed their third consecutive solid class of linemen. “There’s been quite a bit of attrition here, but we have good young kids,” Lembo says.
Ball State has allowed at least 20 points in 26 consecutive games, which shows that the Cardinals are still finding their way.
Things should be solid on the line with senior end Jonathan Newsome (8.5 sacks in 2012) and senior tackle Nathan Ollie (8.5 sacks in the last two years) leading the way. Junior end Nick Miles joins Ollie as the only returnees who started all 13 games in 2012. “We’re slowly starting to build our depth here,” Lembo says.
The Cardinals lost all three starting linebackers. That includes middle man Travis Freeman, who ended last season as the nation’s leading active tackler with 465 career stops. Projected starters Ben Ingle, Julian Boyd and Christopher Calloway combined for 25 tackles last season.
Ball State welcomes back its starting corners in senior Jeffery Garrett and junior Eric Patterson, but the interchangeable safety jobs are up for grabs. Returning starter J.C. Wade and redshirt freshman Martez Hester are battling at one spot, while junior Brian Jones and redshirt freshman Aaron Taylor are competing at the other.
Ball State might have enjoyed the nation’s best kicker/punter combination last year. Alas, Ray Guy finalist Scott Kovanda, who was invited to the NFL Combine, and Steven Schott, who ranked second nationally with 1.92 field goals per game, graduated. Junior Scott Secor takes over at kicker while redshirt freshmen Kyle Schmidt and Alex Egan are battling to be the punter. Smith, who is only 5'8" and 140 pounds, was named third-team All-MAC as a return specialist last year, and he’s capable of being the league’s best kick and punt returner.
For the first time in school history, Ball State knocked off back-to-back BCS conference foes (Indiana and South Florida) last year. That’s a sign of where the Cardinals are headed. If the defense takes a step forward and the new specialists hold their own, Ball State will challenge for MAC West supremacy.