Ball State's coaches logged plenty of frequent flier miles in head coach Mike Neu's first full season of recruiting.
Just about everyone on the coaching staff would pack their bags and fly to visit recruits and convince them — and their families — that the Cardinals were the right fit.
"It's funny, you work all year just for them to send a fax," wide receivers coach Alex Bailey said before Ball State's Signing Day Party.
The class fared well in the recruiting rankings, with 247sports.com ranking the signing day haul second in the Mid-American Conference and 83rd overall one year after being ranked 111th, the seventh-biggest difference in the country.
"That's exciting to [the players] because they expect to come in here and make a difference," Neu said. "When you see that incentive, it's a great motivator if you will, to say 'hey, we were ranked.'"
Only five players in the Cardinals' 27-member recruiting class were from Indiana, with 10 coming from Georgia. Defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2008 and 2009, so naturally he was assigned to be the area scout.
"But Bailey, he comes down there," Jackson said. "[Linebackers] coach [Johnny] Curtis comes down there, Coach Neu comes down there, [running backs coach] Kevin [Lynch] comes down. We work good together as a staff and we team recruit. I think them being able to see us more than one time, or a lot of us together, they can see that it's a family atmosphere."
Neu said he didn't plan on recruiting the South so heavily, but the players who committed early started recruiting their friends.
"We wanted to get down there and really kind of, 'how’s it gonna go when he gets down there?'" Neu said. "But [Jackson] did such a good job of building relationships and getting to know some of the kids, and just like he said, once we got one or two of those kids on board, it was kind of a snowball effect."
As well as playing in Atlanta, Jackson played college football at LSU and is originally from Alabama. While Neu is an Indianapolis native and Ball State alumnus, he lived in New Orleans from 2004-2015, where he coached the Voodoo, an arena league football team, scouted for the Saints of the NFL, and coached quarterbacks at Tulane University and with the Saints.
Linebackers coach Johnny Curtis, who grew up in Louisiana and coached at John Curtis Christian School, said the staff's southern ties helped recruits feel comfortable.
"We wanted guys that understood the family aspect of it because that's what Coach Neu has instilled in our program," Curtis said. "So yes, in the South and bringing those kids up, having that around and having their parents come up was huge. ... That's what we want to be, we want to be an extension of their home."
REPLENISHING THE DEFENSE
At the Signing Day party, one phrase kept being repeated when the coaches introduced the six new linebackers and six new defensive backs — position flexibility.
"If a kid can do more than one thing, his value goes up," Jackson said. "So we won't be pigeonholed just having him at this position or that position, we can put him anywhere on the field and he can do a lot of different things. I think it makes our defense more aggressive, more diverse, and [we can] do whatever we want when we want to do it."
Linebacker Jimmy Daw, for example, played running back at Medina High School in Ohio and set school records for career rushing yards (3,384) and touchdowns (64). Defensive back Verenzo Holmes returned kicks at Grovetown High School (Georgia). Corners Myles Hannah (Stone Mountain, Georgia) and Verenzo Holmes (Grovetown, Georgia) both ran track in high school.
Linebacker Brock Burns, whose older brother Brendan is a junior right-handed pitcher for Ball State's baseball team, played strong safety at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers and is a 6-foot-4-inch example of Curtis's recruiting philosophy.
"What we try to do is recruit those safeties, bring them down to that hybrid, flexible spot, and eventually move those guys as box [middle] linebackers and you just get a really good, seamless rotation," Curtis said. "At the end of the day, when you run into a special one you might get a good NFL player."
But even with the flexibility, there are no guarantees.
"We don't ever promise one kid in recruiting that 'You're a starter,'" Neu said.
That being said, Ball State started three senior linebackers in all 12 games last season—Sean Wiggins, Zack Ryan and Aaron Taylor, so there's an opportunity for some of the new linebackers to earn some playing time. Defensive backs Corey Hall (11 starts) and Martez Hester (10 starts) are also gone, creating chances for the incoming defensive backs.
It just depends on which players earn it.
"There will definitely be some guys in our locker room who are going to play as true freshmen," Curtis said.
But before they could officially call themselves Cardinals, they had to figure out how to use fax machines.
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