Much of the worries Ball State fans have for this season sit on the capable shoulders of Redshirt Fr. QB Kelly Page. Page, as we all know by now, is taking over the reins of the high power Cardinal Offense from now San Francisco 49er Nate Davis. Although it is going to be a trial by fire for the young Page, a 6-4 QB from Texas, he appears to be more and more ready as the season approaches. Page, who Coach Stan Parrish said was a little shaky in his first scrimmage of the fall on Saturday, rebounded in a big way in Tuesday and appears set to take control of the offense. Things will change from a year before, especially with Page and a new line learning on the job, expect to see more bubble screens to WR and more option reads from Page, who has the legs to make some plays.
Behind Page is veteran leader Tanner Justice. A walk-on, who has seen the field both on special teams as a holder and in mop up duty for Davis in the past, has been doing a great job leading the #2's in practice each day and has helped Page with the learning curve involved in QB in Parrish's wide open offense.
Also in the mix is true Ff. Aaron Mershman, who has a solid frame, a big arm and quality athleticism. Look for Mershman to redshirt this year, but to be a contributor in the future.
Probably the deepest position on the offensive side of the ball, the Cardinals will have to rely quite a bit on this unit as Page gets his feet wet. Luckily for Cardinal fans, Sr. RB MiQuale Lewis returns after a 1,700-plus yard season a year ago. Lewis, who has been held out of much of the contact during the fall in order to keep fresh for the season, will be counted on in a big way to help lead the offense. He has worked on his receiving and is expected to be an even bigger weapon in the offense this year.
Two freshman will see time as a backup to Lewis at RB, and both look very promising on the field. David Brown, 5-10 190 from Shelbyville, IN, has wowed the coaches with fall camp workouts, but has missed both scrimmages due to a calf injury, but I expect to see him on the field once that heals. The other freshman is Eric Williams, the big time get for the Cardinals offense a year ago. Williams, a 6-0 210 stud RB from Warren Central in Indianapolis, has shown up in a big way since stepping on campus in the summer. Williams has been getting the bulk of the work with the first team while Lewis is rested, so he is gaining an ever increasing familiarity with the offense.
Expected to see a ton of Williams both at RB and as a KR where he can use his speed and skill. The future is very bright for Williams who many think has the upside to one day play on Sundays.
Depth is a wonderful thing, and having quality depth is something the Cardinals have.
Back from a sensational Fr. Campaign is Briggs Orsbon. After being hampered by the injury bug in the spring, Orsbon is back on his game and has improved his hands and speed since last year. Look for the So. to have a big season.
Making the biggest improvement and probably will be the biggest surprise to fans is 6-2 180 So. Jeremy Hill. The track star from Georgia was a special teams sensation last season that filled in for Myles Trempe when he was injured. Hill has been impressive in camp and big things are expected of him thanks to his size and ability to stretch the field.
Seth White is another freshman counted on to contribute right away. The former High School QB has fit in well in the Ball State offense and has already worked his way into the #1 group. Look for White to be used in a lot of different ways from bubble screens to reverses as he has a knack for racking up the run after catch yards.
Also back are the solid veteran corp of Trempe, Tori Gibson and Dan Ifft. All three have had productive moments during their careers at Ball State and all three are competing and look for playing time this year. Ifft, the solid intermediate WR that is also a deft blocker, Trempe, the deep threat with great size at 6-4 and Gibson, the little dynamo that is modeled much in the same was as White and will do many of the same things.
A strong group of freshman sit behind these talented WRs in Connor Ryan, Jelani Alford and Keith Langtry. All bring solid skill sets to the table and will be forces in the MAC for years to come but will likely be redshirted to help hone their skills.
Despite the loss of Darius Hill and all he brought to the passing game, the Cardinals still have a solid, but small, group of TE to do damage again.
Leading the group is 6-5 230 Madaris Grant. The Sr. is an exceptional blocker and has proven that over the years, but this season, with improvement in his hands and the opportunity to get some of the balls that were previously thrown Hills way, Grant is being looked upon as possibly the best all-around TE in the MAC and a definite first-team selection by years end.
Also in the mix are two talented newcomers – Zane Fakes and Ryan Hartke. Fakes, who comes to the Cardinals after playing RB in High School, is a big and physically gifted athlete at 6-3 220. Fakes has looked surprisingly good in his opportunities this fall and should contribute right away. Hartke, although not a true newcomer, comes to the offense after 2 years as a LB. At 6-4 225, Hartke has good size and should help in both blocking and passing.
The top Fr. in this group for the future is Jacob Green. He is progressing nicely and looks to be a future major contributor to the offense. But for now, he might be better served with a redshirt campaign to hone his skill.
If it wasn't the QB position Cardinal fans fretted about, then it was certainly the Offensive Line, where the Cardinals lost 4 of the 6 different players that started in multiple games last season.
Swizter, who has the skill and body to be a future All-MAC player. Has NFL potential and continues to improve his footwork and pass blocking skills every day.
Hunter, who moved over from OG to C this year, has been getting a lot better with each passing practice at his snap and hands and also at pulling.
With two spots solidified, the coaching staff must now figure out who the other three starters will be – and there are 4 players who seem to be making the most noise for these spots.
At left tackle will be Cameron Lowry, a redshirt freshman from Indianapolis Pike. Lowry, who the coaches have been high on since he signed, used his redshirt year in a positive way as he loaded on weight and looks to have improved his footwork – he should be a solid LT for years to come for the Cardinals.
At right guard (Switzer will be LG and Hunter C), the biggest positional battle is taking place. 6-8 redshirt Jr. Travis Arnold currently holds the lead for the first start of the year. Arnold is a massive man at 6-8 and has really competed every day in camp and has shown the coaches that he has the tenacity to take the field and has the knowledge of the offense to help give him a spot. He is battling promising true Fr. Kitt O'Brien, a 6-6 310 behemoth of a G from small Lewis Cass High in Indiana. O'Brien has a ton of upside and looks like he will be a fixture on the line for years to come, but as a freshman, he has made his share of mistakes – looking like a starter on one play and then erring on the next.
At right tackle will probably be redshirt Fr. Austin Holtz. I have heard that Holtz has solid footwork and athleticism for his size, but is still adjusting to the speed he will fast every Saturday. Holtz has what it takes to be a solid player, it will just take him game time to get there.
Shining brightly out of the group of backups are true Frreshmen Evan Neff and Matthew Page. Neff, even though he will redshirt this year to get bigger, appears to be the Cardinals future at C. Neff is a taller and more athletic version of Dan Gerberry. Page, who is mammoth and still growing at 6-6 300, has displayed a lot of good skills in camp but will also redshirt to work on his strength. The sky is the limit for this young man's future. It all depends on his work from day to day, but he definitely has the frame and athleticism to play in the NFL one day. In all, the staff signed 3 OLs in last year's class and all three will be solid for years to come.
With all the question marks surrounding the offense as we head into September and football season, it is apparent that this group is young and a work in progress, but is definitely a group that has a ton of talent and will be back up and running as the high powered unit Cardinal fans have come to expect in short order.
Stay tuned for tomorrow when we tackle the Cardinals' strength for 2009 – the defense.