Ball State Cardinals 2016 Preview and Prediction

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#116 Ball State Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#116

MAC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Mike Neu, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Daoust

A disappointing 3-9 showing was followed by the unexpected departure of former head coach Pete Lembo. Mike Neu returns to his alma mater, looking to return Ball State to the top of the MAC. The Cardinals should be productive enough on offense, but the key to a significant turnaround lies on the other side of the ball.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2016


Mike Neu spent the last 12 years in New Orleans and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints as a scout in 2009, so it was going to take someplace special for Neu to leave the Big Easy. Then Ball State head coach Pete Lembo opted in December to become Maryland’s assistant head coach. Neu jumped at the chance to return to Ball State, where he won the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year award while leading the Cardinals to the 1993 conference title.

Neu retained offensive coordinator Joey Lynch and plans to merge the Cardinals’ previous offense with the Saints’ passing game concepts that fit Ball State’s personnel. Judging by Neu’s thoughts on sophomore quarterback Riley Neal, who threw for 2,276 yards, rushed for 399 yards and accounted for 18 TDs, everything might fit. “He has got a big, big, big-time arm,” says Neu, who coached for two seasons at Tulane before rejoining the Saints in 2014. “He can make all the throws. He has a great combo of arm strength and touch.”

Ball State’s top receiver (Jordan Williams) has graduated, but Neal can count on a big target in KeVonn Mabon (70 catches) and slot man Corey Lacanaria (45). 

The Cardinals also welcome back all of their running backs. Elusive junior Darian Green and powerful sophomore James Gilbert split the carries last year, but Neu envisions senior Teddy Williamson giving Ball State a three-headed monster in the backfield.

The Cardinals must replace a trio of graduated offensive linemen, including second-team All-MAC center Jacob Richard. The battles at center, right guard and right tackle could extend throughout camp, which could put additional pressure on senior left tackle Drake Miller and junior left guard Vinnie Palazeti.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2016

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On the recommendation of Saints offensive line coach and former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar and former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer, Neu interviewed Orange assistant head coach Tim Daoust for the defensive coordinator job. “In the first five minutes, I knew he was the guy I wanted to hire,” Neu says.

Daoust has implemented an attacking 4-3 style that resembles Michigan State’s scheme. He has nine returning starters to fill the new roles, but it’s a group that surrendered 518 yards and 35.8 points per game.

First-team All-MAC linebacker Sean Wiggins finished last season in the middle, but he’s moving to the weak side alongside fellow seniors Zack Ryan and Aaron Taylor. They’re the strength of this bunch.

Senior defensive end Joshua Posley also earned first-team All-MAC honors last year with nine tackles for a loss and six quarterback hurries. The Cardinals aren’t afraid to give newcomers such as junior college transfers John Swisher and Reggie McGee and freshmen Chris Crumb and James Jennette III the chance to carve out roles on the defensive line.

The secondary didn’t lose any starters, but roles are changing to fit the scheme. Senior boundary safety Martez Hester (22 starts) and senior cornerback Tyree Holder (21) bring the most credentials.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2016


Sophomore kicker Morgan Hagee drilled 14-of-15 field goals inside 40 yards but hit just 2-of-6 of his long-distance tries. Four-year punter Kyle Schmidt’s averaged dropped to 39.7 yards, but he put 21 inside the 20-yard line. Mabon earned third-team All-MAC kudos as a returner.

Final Analysis


Ball State has enough offensive talent to get back to .500, but it’s very difficult to win when allowing opponents to average 5.3 yards per carry and complete 70 percent of their passes. It’s going to take time for Ball State to put Michigan State’s schemes to good use.