By Dane Massey | Sports Link
MUNCIE, Ind — Cardinal football is back in a big way as Ball State travels to Knoxville, Tenn. to take on the Vols in their first matchup of the season.
Thursday’s SEC Network game is the first meeting in series history. The Vols are a perfect 8-0 against MAC teams all-time. While the Cardinals are 4-58 all-time against teams in the power five conferences (PAC-12, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and ACC). Despite the record, the Cardinals have an opportunity to make some noise early in the season.
Coming off a bowl game appearance for the second consecutive year, the Cardinals are primed for another run for the Mid-American Conference Title after a disappointing 2021-22 season. Finishing with a record of 6-7, the Cardinals are looking to start fresh this season, and begin running to regain the Mid-American Conference crown.
“It’s exciting that football season is here,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Certainly, last year we [felt] like we had some unfulfilled expectations. We lost three one-possession games… and you look back on it and reflect on it and you talk about the details all the time… We’re just excited to get back out there again…”
While it will be a tough test for the Cardinals on the road, here are a few keys to keep an eye on the watch list for Ball State’s season opener.
A Dangerous Backfield
There were a lot of questions going into the offseason about the offense: Who would be placed at quarterback? Will the Cardinal offense be able to bounce back after last season? Who will be the playmakers this team needs?
Despite only having six starters returning, they still have plenty of highlight reel players on the roster. For a new starting quarterback, that’s all you can ask for.
Redshirt junior John Paddock will take the reins this season as the new starting quarterback for the Cardinals. Paddock sat behind Drew Plitt on the depth chart the last 3 seasons, and in the time as a backup, he’s shown flashes of what he can bring to this offense. In a span of five games, Paddock has thrown for 180 yards. Although that number isn’t massive, he did average an incredible 36 yards per game on 34 passing attempts. In one of his games, he played against then-ranked No. 11 Penn State, and played solidly (5/6 50 yards 0 TDs), which means he does have some sort of experience in playing high-level completion.
Paddock’s supporting cast is equally as impressive. Running back Carson Steele, who had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season, is primed for another strong campaign. The passing game is full of weapons also. Senior wideouts Yo’Heinz Tyler (487 receiving yards, six TDs) and Jayshon Jackson (862 receiving yards, five TDs) lead the receiving corp. The Cardinals also added Redshirt Junior Amir Abdur-Rahman (632 receiving yards and three TDs in his three seasons at Vanderbilt) as another useful weapon for Paddock. The Cardinals also acquired two 6-6 tight ends in freshmen Tanner Koziol and Brady Hunt to help upgrade the passing game even more.
The Cardinal backfield has loads of talent at each position in the backfield. It is going to be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch and Head Coach Mike Neu will do with it against a Tennessee defense that is ranked 78th overall last season (Ranked below Toledo (28th), Army Black Knights (36th), Wyoming Cowboys (37th), Miami (OH) RedHawks (45th), Central Michigan (66th), and Ball State (72nd)).
Transfers and New Faces oh My!
During the offseason, Ball State ramped up the roster by acquiring 42 new players (transfers, grayshirts, and freshmen). With a fraction of that number being from transfers from high-level football programs all over the country.
Along with Abdur-Rahman (Vanderbilt), Ball State added other key transfers that could make an impact on the roster. Transfer safeties Jaquan Amos (Villanova/Iowa State) and Loren Strickland (Indianapolis) should solidify the defensive back core and provide a nightmare for deep ball threats. Redshirt freshman Kyle King (Michigan State) should bring some prime experience with playing superior teams and should be a nice addition to the pass rush. The Cardinals also brought in some special teams help. Scoring sophomore punter Chase Wyatt (Indiana), and senior kicker Ben VonGunten (Indiana Wesleyan). The Cardinals also got some offensive line help in junior center Brandon Malkow (Western Illinois).
There was also a handful of freshmen from Ball State’s then highest recruiting class that enrolled early, including quarterback Kaden Kobb, linebacker DeJuan Echoles Jr. and defensive lineman Karl Odrick Jr. along with other grayshirts and transfers from the class.
The Defense Just Keeps on Growing
After a disappointing 2021 season, the Cardinal got to work to upgrade the defense significantly. Last season, the Cardinals surrendered a staggering 415.7 yards per game with 243 yards coming off of the passing game. Although the Cardinal defense ranked fourth in the Mid-American Conference, they ranked 71st overall in Division I. Compared to Toledo, one of the better teams in the MAC last year, finished 28th overall.
Despite the struggles and questions rising about the replacements of stars like safety Bryce Cosby and linebacker Jaylin Brown, Head Coach Mike Neu and his crew got to work. And boy did he make some splashes in the offseason.
Neu believes that the depth of the defensive line is the best it has been during his seven seasons in charge of the program. The Cardinals not only brought in significant transfers, but they also brought back some of the top producers from 2021. Tavion Woolard is one of them. The redshirt sophomore out of West Lafayette, Indiana racked up 28 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss, as well as five sacks.
The linebacker core is just as, with junior Clayton Coll primed for another superstar-caliber season. In 2021, Coll racked up 108 tackles, ranking third most on the team and just behind Jaylin Thomas (he graduated in 2021). Junior Cole Pierce was not far behind him with 38 (ranked eighth most on the team) last season and should work well with Coll in racking up tackles for the Ball State defense.
The defensive back position was also upgraded tremendously. Although Ball State will have new starters at nickel in Jordan Riley-Scott and Nic Jones, there is plenty of experience at the position. Ameche Uzodinma II, a standout player in the secondary last season, racked up 126 tackles, 25 pass breakups, and seven interceptions. as well as safeties Malcolm Lee and Iowa State transfer Jaquan Amos will solidify the deep balls.
The Cardinals are going to need the pieces to match up against a Tennessee passing game that is looking to be much sharper coming into this season. Tennessee finished last season with the 9th best offense overall. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is primed for another strong season after finishing with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions last season, and with the threat of senior wideout Cedric Tillman (who is coming off of a 1,000-yard season), Tennessee’s offense will be a tough test for a new and improved Cardinal defense.
“Obviously it’s tough to slow [Hendon Hooker] down. Neu said. “When a guy can throw it like that and he’s got that kind of size and athletic ability, can hurt you with his legs as well, that’s a challenge. We work a ton around here on tackling, on open-field tacklin, so guys just have to do a good job.”
The Cardinals and Vols will kickoff at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Neyland Stadium and will stream live on the SEC Network. Follow along with @bsusportslink for more updates