One year ago, Mike Neu took over as the head coach for the Ball State football team, right at the tail-end of the recruiting season.
But this season’s recruiting class was different.
This time, Neu wasn’t retaining the players that former head coach Pete Lembo and staff brought in. He preached a “family atmosphere” en route the 27-member 2017 Ball State recruiting class, a class that ranks second in the Mid-American Conference, behind only Toledo, according to 247sports.
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“It’s a total effort here in recruiting,” Neu said in front of a packed Alumni Center Jan. 31. “We team recruit better than any staff in the country. And when I say that, there’s not just one coach that went to see any of these players; … there’s several coaches in the homes of these young men trying to sell Ball State University.”
The different background of the Ball State coaching staff allowed them to balance their recruiting efforts in the states surrounding Indiana, but also expanding down South, to states that revolve around high school football.
Unique backgrounds from coaches like Chevis Jackson and Johnny Curtis allowed the Cardinals to get 10 players from the football powerhouse state of Georgia, where Jackson played for the Atlanta Falcons for two years, and three from Curtis’ home state of Louisiana.
That, paired with quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch and running back coach Kevin Lynch’s playing experience within Indiana and special teams coordinator Patrick Dougherty, who played college football in Ohio, made for a diverse recruiting class that contained players from nine different states.
“Everyone has a background and help in different ways,” Joey Lynch said. “There’s a lot of awful good players here in the Midwest. I think it’s important in the Mid-American Conference that you recruit your home state, you recruit the surrounding states, but I do think you have to go somewhere south. I think, just with the staff makeup, we can kind of hit all of those areas that we think are important.”
The tight-knit mentality of the coaching staff got in the door down south, where they capitalized on many of the three-star prospects who were just as familiar with each other.
The Georgia connection began with wide receiver Hassan Littles from Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Littles helped convince teammates Justin Gibbs and Khalil Newton — both wide receivers — to continue their playing careers in Muncie, Indiana.
“Really all of those guys really played around each other,” wide receivers coach Alex Bailey said. “They knew each other, and it was kind of like, ‘Hey man, you’re going to Ball State?’ They had conversations, and with all of us coaches being down there at some point, building relationships with the coaches and the families, it all kind of worked out for the best.”
Ball State also capitalized on another teammate pair from the Peach State. Bailey expanded his receiving core — which next year will be without all-time Cardinal reception leader KeVonn Mabon — with wide receiver Khalil Newton out of Stephenson High School, who will be joined with his teammate Verenzo Holmes, a cornerback from Grovetown, Georgia.
“A lot of them played together in the Cam Newton seven-on-seven league last summer, so they all kind of knew each other and that really helped,” Neu said.
With familiarities on and off the field, the coaches are prepared to see what this year’s class can do for the Cardinals in the future.
“The personality with these kids is strong, and they’re confident,” Joey Lynch said. “I just think that this group is different and they’re going to come in ready to compete.”
That competition will have to wait until June when the remaining recruits, excluding offensive lineman Jake McKenzie who enrolled early, will be on campus preparing to earn starting jobs.
“Obviously it’s on paper right now,” Neu said. “I wish we could fast forward to June 19 to get these kids here.”