Mike Neu led Ball State to a 4-8 record in his first season as head coach at his alma mater and he'll be working with a young and inexperienced team this fall. With only nine starters returning, there will be plenty of opportunity for younger players to emerge, but it also will result in more growing pains. The offense will lean on the running game while Neu hopes his quarterback can take the next step forward. The defense has a new coordinator who will try and get more out of a unit that gave up the most yards in the MAC and created very few turnovers. Wins could few this season for the Cardinals as Neu and his coaching staff look to build the foundation for future success.
Previewing Ball State Football's Offense for 2017
For the two seasons prior to his arrival at Ball State, Mike Neu coached Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Neu admits that his experiences with the 10-time Pro Bowler might have influenced him to set unrealistic standards for Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal. Neal completed 61.4 percent of his passes last year, but his 13-to-12 TD-to-INT ratio wasn’t quite what Neu hoped. “My expectation level was probably a little bit unfair,” Neu says. “He was dealing with a coaching change and a new offense and he was a true sophomore. … He was in some critical situations that he will learn from. He’s come such a long way. I expect him to make huge improvement.”
Neal missed spring ball after undergoing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. He settled for mental reps when he could have used some pitch-and-catch time with Ball State’s revamped receiving corps, which lost all-time receptions leader KeVonn Mabon to graduation and superb freshman Damon Hazelton Jr. to transfer. Slot man Corey Lacanaria (33 catches, two TDs) is the top returning target, so there’s room for a trio of three-star recruits from Georgia — Khalil Newton, Justin Gibbs and Justin Hall — to make an immediate impact.
The passing game will have some time to mature, because the running game ranks among the MAC’s finest. James Gilbert earned first-team all-league honors after piling up 1,332 yards and 12 TDs, and he’ll get to run behind three linemen who started all 12 games last year — senior center-turned-left guard Vinnie Palazeti, senior right guard Pat Maloney and junior left guard-turned-right tackle Alex Joss — along with part-time starter Kadin Booker.
Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2017
Defensive coordinator Tim Daoust moved to Western Michigan in the offseason, so Neu used the opportunity to hire former Western Kentucky head coach David Elson to take over Ball State’s 4-3 scheme. Elson’s primary priority? Force more turnovers. The Cardinals managed just seven interceptions and seven fumble recoveries in 2016. “Every practice we have, it’s an emphasis,” Neu says.
Ball State welcomes back just four starters from last year’s crew that ranked last among MAC teams in yards allowed (470.3 ypg) and tied for ninth in turnovers forced (14). The Cardinals’ strength is along the line of scrimmage, where third-team All-MAC defensive end Anthony Winbush added 20 pounds with plans to add to last year’s 8.5 sacks. Veteran tackle Kevin Willis contributed two sacks.
The secondary features cornerbacks Marc Walton, who picked off three passes and broke up 11 others, and David Moore (10 pass breakups). “We’re going to expand on last year’s scheme and mix it up more on the back end with our coverages,” Neu says.
Ball State lost all three of its linebackers to graduation, including third-team all-league pick Sean Wiggins. Though the unit is short on experience, Neu asserts that junior weak-side backer Damon Singleton and sophomore middle linebacker Jacob White have paid their dues and are ready to play.
Previewing Ball State Football’s Specialists for 2017
Junior Morgan Hagee has been virtually automatic inside 40 yards (26-of-28), but his career long is a 45-yarder. He could pull double duty as the punter, although the Cards are hopeful that incoming freshman Nathan Snyder can handle the gig. More newcomers could factor in the kick returner competition. Lacanaria has experience as the punt returner.
Ball State boasts just 12 seniors, so the Cardinals need help from Neu’s first two recruiting classes. In particular, the highly touted class of 2017 will have to make an immediate contribution if Ball State is to make a move in the MAC West.
National Ranking: 116
MAC West Prediction: 6
(James Gilbert photo courtesy of www.ballstatesports.com)