After successful stints at Lehigh and Elon, both in the FCS, Pete Lembo worked his magic again as he led the Cardinals to 25 wins in his 3 seasons here. This most recent season, Ball State went 10-3, with a 7-1 conference record. The sole loss (48-27 to Northern Illinois) cost the Cardinals a trip to the MAC title game. The other 2 losses, to surprising North Texas and Sun Belt powerhouse Arkansas State, were by less than a score. The Cardinals highlighted their league dominance with an impressive 15 players on all-MAC teams, tops in the conference. The problem is, last year’s year edition had a number of key senior starters, none of whom will be around in 2014. Lembo has just signed a well-earned contract extension, but his toughest job may yet be ahead of him.
There’s no question the offense, and to be more precise, the passing attack, was the driving force of the team last season. Quarterback Keith Wenning has done nothing but improve over his 4 years as a starter, and while he is less well-known than some of his conference peers, he meant a lot to the Cardinals. Last season he passed for 4148 yards and 35 TDs, with just 7 interceptions, and he now holds a host of team records. Wenning had a fine bunch of receivers to throw to. Willie Snead led the team with 106 receptions for 1516 yards and 15 TDs, but Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith combined for 139 receptions, 1961 yards and 18 scores. Tight end Zane Fakes (41-410-2) was no slouch either. The running game was in good hands with Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks accounting for a combined 1705 yards and 21 scores, despite missing 6 games between them. The offensive line, led by all-MAC left guard Jordan Hansel, paved the way for the running game, while allowing just 16 sacks in 509 passes. They had some issues in short yardage that need to be ironed out though.
Now the fun begins. The first order of training camp will be to find a replacement for Wenning. Ozzie Mann was the backup last season, but didn’t get much opportunity to strut his stuff. Kyle Kamman was the holder last year, and played a little in 2012, while Jack Milas impressed at times in camp last season. Incoming freshman David Morrison will likely redshirt if he doesn’t dominate from day 1. Who the new quarterback throws to will be a question mark too. Smith and Fakes are graduating, while Snead has taken advantage of his success and declared for the NFL draft. Williams is the only starter left, but luckily, he’s a good one. KeVonn Mabon was a contributor in 2012, but was knocked out for the year early on last season, and should be a factor this year. He’s a big, athletic target with some speed. There is plenty of talent in reserve – and the Cardinals seem to have a thing for big targets – but they are pretty green. Fakes may be gone at tight end, but the position should still be a strength. Sam Brunner and Dylan Curry both saw action last season, and will contribute again, but redshirt freshman Calvin Blank should be the best of the bunch. Ball State aren’t averse to running double-tight either. Even if the passing attack takes it time to hit top gear, the running attack will be in good hands with the return of the thunder and lightning duo of Edwards and Banks. Teddy Williamson had his moments in reserve. The offensive line loses Hansel and right tackle Matthew Page, which certainly doesn’t help, but it needs to get tougher when it counts. Top recruit Malik King can help there, and should take over for Hansel, although he could play at tackle either. Drake Miller and Jeremiah Harvey were the backups at tackle last season, and one of them will likely replace Page.
A tale of two defenses. The run defense was a weakness, allowing 195 yards per game and 22 TDs. This was despite the presence of a couple of all-MAC performers on the line in Jonathan Newsome at end and Nate Ollie at tackle. Newsome led the team with 8 sacks, and also had 64 tackles, while Ollie has 72 tackles, 10 for loss, and was also a decent pass rusher. Ben Ingle was the star of linebackers, posting a team-leading 116 tackles. Zach Ryan was no slouch in the middle with 92 tackles, 8 in the backfield, while Kenneth Lee chipped in with 50. Apart from a bad day at the office against Northern Illinois, the secondary was generally great, limiting opponents from making big plays and allowing just 14 TDs against 13 interceptions. Strong safety Brian Jones made plays all over the field, making 97 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and also breaking up 6 passes. Cornerback Jeffery Garrett was the only all-conference pick, making 52 tackles, an impressive 7.5 for loss (for a CB), and breaking up 5 passes and intercepting another 5 (1 TD).
Despite some losses on the line this year, the defense could be an even better unit. Only defensive end Nick Miles (42 tackles, 5 sacks) is back from the starting unit, and replacing the other 3 will be a focus. Notre Dame transfer Bruce Heggie, a senior tackle, will be eligible to play this season and could be a factor in the rotation. He played in a bunch of games in South Bend. Last season’s backups, Darnell Smith and Carlutorbantu Zaramo, will see time, if not start, although Smith lacks the ballast to play on those all important short yardage plays. Don’t be surprised if freshman Kevin Willis makes an early impact, although he may need a year to acclimatize after playing mostly offense in high school. The linebacking corps is in great shape with only Lee gone, and a ton of decent depth returning. Expect Sean Wiggins and Avery Martin to lead the charge to replace Lee – both played regularly last season. The secondary is also in good shape, with only Garrett graduating (although a sizable loss). Senior corner Quinton Cooper has played often over the last couple of seasons and should be in line to replace Garrett, although his height (5’7) could be a concern. Also back is former starting strong safety JC Wade, setting up a solid camp battle with Dae’Shaun Hurley, who filled in admirably as an injury replacement. Good depth too.
The special teams unit was decent, with kicker Scott Secor making all-MAC for nailing 19 of 24 field goals. Three of his misses were from over 48 yards, although he missed a couple of easier ones too. Freshman punter Kyle Schmidt wasn’t bad, but he certainly wasn’t flashy, although he has plenty of time to learn. Smith returned both kicks and punts, and was on the all-MAC teams as a kick returner. Both kick and punt coverage units were solid.
Secor and Schmidt are back this season, and Schmidt should be better with a year under his belt. Smith is gone, and will be missed on special teams as well as on offense. Banks could potentially take over, but there are other options. The coverage units should remain strong.
Can Ball State continue to contend this season? Hard to call, as the loss of Wenning at quarterback may be too difficult to overcome this year. The rest of the team should be solid from top to bottom, and the schedule certainly isn’t too difficult, but the notoriously unpredictable MAC has made many pundits look silly. Northern Illinois may take a dive this season, and many of Ball State’s other opponents were less than stellar in 2013, but that was a whole year ago. That being said, Lembo is a great coach, and definitely has the Cardinals heading in the right direction. This season may see a slip to 7 or 8 wins.
Tags: Avery Martin Ball State Cardinals Ben Ingle Brian Jones Bruce Heggie Calvin Blank Carlutorbantu Zaramo Dae’Shaun Hurley Darnell Smith David Morrison Drake Miller Dylan Curry Horactio Banks Jack Milas Jahwan Edwards JC Wade Jeremiah Harvey Jordan Williams Kevin Willis KeVonn Mabon Kyle Kamman Kyle Schmidt MAC Football Malik King Nick Miles Ozzie Mann Pete Lembo Quinton Cooper Sam Brunner Scott Secor Sean Wiggins Zach Ryan