Ball State football fans get their first opportunity to see the 2017 team this Saturday when the Cardinals hold their Spring Game.
Head coach Mike Neu said it's his first chance to evaluate the team at full speed.
"It's not a scripted practice, you don't know exactly what's going to unfold on Saturday," Neu said. "You don't know exactly what opportunities that you're going to have on this game field. When they have an opportunity to make the play, which young players step up and make it?"
Spring practice can be beneficial for returning players because it's a window for them to showcase their improvement before the incoming freshmen arrive in the summer — a welcome chance given that Neu's first full offseason resulted in the second-best recruiting class in the Mid-American Conference.
"This has given [returning players] an opportunity to show what they can do on the field before [the recruits] get here," redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Winbush said. "If you're messing up now, you're going to have to fix it."
Winbush led the Cardinals with 8.5 sacks last season, which was good for third in the Mid-American Conference.
"Even me, I know somebody might be coming in to take my spot," Winbush said. "I've got the mindset that I'm not going to let nobody take my spot, so everybody's just got to come out here to compete."
Junior running back James Gilbert said Ball State should look sharper in season's spring game because the players have now played a full season in Neu's system.
"We're looking better," Gilbert said. "Last year this time we were learning a whole new playbook. This year we're just polishing up, getting solid on our routes."
Gilbert also said the defense looks good in practice even though it has to replace all three of last season's starting linebackers.
"We got a new defensive coordinator, obviously, but the defensive schemes are much more difficult to operate and execute our plays," Gilbert said. "I feel like the defense is heading in a good direction and we need that heading into this season."
The Cardinals' offense will also feature some new looks. Although the offense figures to run through Gilbert and the running game again — Gilbert finished second in the MAC with 111 yards per game — Neu said he's planning on moving the tight ends around the field. Winbush said it's been difficult to defend in practice.
"It's more unpredictable with us," Winbush said. "Usually we know [if the play is a run or a pass], but since they're throwing that in we've got to buckle down and not get too antsy with what they do."
With new roles, Neu said he wants to see which players have their roles down and which players play with confidence.
"They don't know what play's going to be called," Neu said. "They don't know when or where or how or if something's going to transpire. So I'm anxious to see how those guys respond on a bigger stage than what's been there so far in spring practice."
The game begins at noon Saturday at Scheumann Stadium.