And a year older and more experienced they are. Back are all 5 starting Offensive Linemen, the starting QB (ironically - back from a thumb injury), the star studded backfield and a bevy of WR talent. Adding to those returners are a handful of newcomers (true and redshirt freshman) who will vie for playing time and also contribute in big ways.
The most ballyhooed and watched position on the offense is always the QB spot, last season redshirt freshman Kelly Page was basically a lock to start from day one and although he had his troubles from the beginning, he was able to mount a trio of solid performances just before injuring his thumb and missing the rest of the season. Kelly is back, and still at the helm – but he getting pushed in a big way from a highly touted youngster.
Page has shown a ton of improvement from a year ago; he has had a much better fall camp than we saw a season ago. One thing that Page has reportedly taken the most pride and ownership in is his leadership. Page has stepped up in his role as a leader on and off the field.
Standing directly behind Page and breathing down his neck has been highly touted true freshman QB Keith Wenning. The stud QB from Coldwater, OH has looked very impressive in fall camp and comes in with NFL-type size (6-4 230) and a cannon arm. People like to say that good QB's can make "all of the throws" – this kid absolutely does that and then some.
Also back at QB is Redshirt Fr. Aaron Mershman. The 6-3 225 Mershman will be the #3 QB coming out of camp and has already started to play as an H-Back/TE/FB in practice in hopes of the coaching staff being able to get his athleticism out on the field. More on him later though.
At Running Back, what can we say – other than this is the best group in the Mid American Conference and possibly one of the best in all of the Midwest. Oh yeah, and a new face will be adding to the backfield as well.
Back for his fifth year and just 600+ yards from taking over the Ball State All-Time Rushing title is mighty mite Quale Lewis. The Sr. is expected to be the #1 workhorse again in the loaded backfield, but expect to see him moved around a little bit more than last year. Not only will be back in his normal tailback spot as well as at Wildcat QB, but we should see him more and more in the slot – with an effort to get him into space where he can highlight his shifty moves and quickness.
Also back is what might be the fastest man in the MAC in Jr. Cory Sykes. The 5-7 165 RB might be a little bit smaller than most at his position in the FBS level, but no one can match his wheels with the ball in his hands. Expect the same sort of stuff from Cory as last season – lots of sweeps & reverses as well as normal between the tackle duty. We are very excited to see Sykes in open space again.
The third member is So. Eric Williams. Hailing from Indianapolis Warren Central, the speedy Williams owns the best combo of size and speed of the backfield members. Look for Williams to get 20-25 touches a game as he will be on the field as much as possible with Sykes and Lewis still getting theirs. Williams has a ton of upside and showed flashes of future brilliance last season as a true freshman.
The fourth and newest member to the Cardinals backfield will be Redshirt Fr. David Brown. Expect Brown, who is 5-9 210, to get some carries as a true - between the tackles - kind of running back.
The Wide Receiver corps boasts 7 players that will contribute – it is a deep group, but is largely unknown save for the top 3 returners.
Back for his senior campaign is tall and lanky Danny Ifft. A true leader on the field and a great student off it, Ifft does everything asked of him. He makes the tough catch and gets open when needed and is also an excellent blocker. Word is that Ifft is playing his best ball of his career and is looking to be a major help in the passing game.
Top target Briggs Orsbon is also back, the strong and nimble possession-type receiver is expected to get a lot of touches once again and will surely be the go to guy once the season starts. Expect Briggs to make the tough catch and get some more yards after the catch than a season ago.
The final member of the trio of returning starters is Torieal Gibson. The Jr. from Cleveland Glenville has improved a ton each and every year and had a very strong season a year ago. Tori has looked even more impressive in camp this season than he has to this point in his career and should be a major cog in the Ball State passing attack.
Rounding out the receiving corps are 4 or 5 newcomers that will contribute – but playing time will be a dog fight each and every day for most in this group.
One player in the group to surely get some PT will be Redshirt Fr. Otis Brown. After getting his NCAA Clearinghouse issues squared away too late to play last season, Brown electrified the practice squad and was named the squad's player of the year on offense. Expect more of the same this year as he is easily the fastest and quickest of the Cardinal receivers. Expect Brown to be a big part of the offense as long as he keeps performing well in practice.
Also expected to help out is Conner Ryan. Ryan, who has the look of a craftier, more polished WR is expected to make some things happen. He has a knack of getting open and has had a great camp after missing some time last year with injuries.
One player fans will surely fall in love with, if they haven't already, is the quick, but tiny, Jamill Smith. The local product out of Muncie South High School may only be 5-7 140, but he brings it with a large heart and great athleticism. Expect Smith to be the punt returner at the season's start and get some looks as a WR and in the slot.
The final two names are players vying to make the regular squad – one will be playing, the other will likely redshirt. True Freshmen Jack Tomlinson and Phil Dudley have both been better than advertised in fall camp, but with playing time a hard commodity to come by both player will have to work their tails off to find out who will be playing on Saturday's this season.
Tomlinson, an Ohio All Star from Westerville, came in and was as advertised. The 5-9 170 speedster is a solid WR who has flashed great hands and has some great athleticism.
Also fairing well this fall has been Ben Davis Fr. Phil Dudley. Also 5-9 170, Dudley has surprised everyone looking on at practice with his skill set. He was one of the prizes of the past recruiting class, but Dudley has been better than expected as he has picked up his switch from prep RB to college WR with ease.
Tight End brings one returning regular and a handful of newcomers that have to help provide depth in a position that the Cardinal offense relies on.
Gone is Madaris Grant, who was not granted a 6th year of eligibility this season and instead joins the coaching staff as a student coach. With him gone now, the attention turns to So. Zane Fakes as option #1 at TE.
Fakes played a ton last season after Grant injured his knee on the opening offensive series of the season last year against North Texas. Fakes, a 6-3 235 solid, all-around TE, has developed well this camp as an improved pass catcher and continues his improvement as a blocker.
Also expected to contribute a ton this season is true freshman David Schneider. The 6-3 255 Cincinnati Moeller product comes to Ball State as one of the less heralded recruits, but he comes in as possibly the most game ready. Schneider has impressed with his toughness and skill as a blocker and will be counted on heavily as a blocker.
Moving from QB (where he is still #3 on the depth chart) is the aforementioned Mershman. The 6-3 225 Redshirt Freshman, moved over to the TE/H-Back spot earlier in fall camp and has turned heads with his athleticism and solid hands. Already boasting a great understanding of the playbook, Mershman has shown the ability to pick up the nuisances of the TE spot with ease.
Speaking of nuisance, the other top TE prospect is 6-6 235 true freshman Derek Orr. Likely a redshirt, Orr has been a pleasant surprise with his athleticism, size and ball skills. Because Orr was a prep WR though, he might be a redshirt candidate as he picks up blocking and other skills necessary to play with his hand in the dirt at TE.
A season ago, Offensive Line might have had as more questions than any other position on the field. The backbone of the offense, the offensive line often struggled – but picked up steam as the Cardinals found their comfort on the ground as the season progressed. Back are all five starters from a season ago. Ironically, all five players hail from Indiana.
The Left Tackle spot will be manned – as it was last year and will be for the next few seasons – by Cameron Lowry. The 6-5 290 is the most athletic of the Cardinals linemen. Lowry has the biggest upside and many around the program believe he will be the best OL in the MAC in a year or two.
The mainstay and most experienced returner is Sr. Left Guard Mike Switzer. Back for his 4th year as a starter, Switzer will likely be a team captain and is a leader in every way. Many around the program believe that Switzer might be the best guard in the Conference and has a good shot of playing on Sunday's next year.
Kreg Hunter returns for his second season at Center. Hunter is a tough and physical player and plays with a ton of pride. The Jr. helps round out one of the most sturdy and experienced left sides in the MAC.
In at Right Guard is So. Kitt O'Brien. After playing a lot as a true freshman, big things are expect of this big man - 6-5 315. Word around the program is that this is a huge year for Kitt and he has to move forward as everyone is expecting big jumps in his play.
Rounding out the starting five is Right Tackle Dan Manick. A former DT, Manick brings loads of athleticism. Manick moves well and is a good pass blocker. At 6-5 285 as still just a So., Manick has a lot of upside and many believe that he has the skill to grow with Lowry into the best Tackle combo in the MAC.
Offensive line depth is added by a pair of familiar faces and a pair of newcomers. Back for his fifth season is giant Travis Arnold. The 6-8 299 OG has been a mainstay in the second unit and has been serviceable as a backup.
Also back is 6-5 290 OT backup Austin Holtz. The So. has seen time as a starter and continues to push Manick and Lowry.
The newcomers turning heads are redshirt Fr. Matt Page. At 6-6 295 and a ton of athleticism – Page has lots of upside and ability – he is just needing to add polish and technique to his game to be a force.
Of the true freshmen on the squad, one player has turned the most heads. Jordan Hansel, a 6-4 305 muscle man from Kentucky, will likely redshirt because of depth, but has surprised. Hansel is tough and strong and is expected to figure prominently down the road.
Stay tuned as we tackle the Ball State defense in the coming days.