For the first time since 2012, Ball State football heads into the season without a proven top option in the passing game.
Last year’s leading receiver KeVonn Mabon is on the Tennessee Titans’ preseason roster and Damon Hazelton, Jr. transferred to Virginia Tech, leaving seniors Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue as the most productive returning receivers.
But they both primarily played in the slot and Lacanaria had just 33 catches for 341 yards while Hogue had 20 catches for 170 yards. Even combined, 53 catches for 511 yards is still fewer than any top returning receiver since 2012.
As a result, the Cardinals receiving corps will mix in their younger players.
“We’re not necessarily changing the things we do offensively, we’re going to do what we do,” wide receivers coach Alex Bailey said. “It’s just a matter of getting those guys up to speed and getting those guys to play hard and be consistent.”
Bailey said the freshmen flash their potential on a daily basis, though it’s difficult to point out any player in particular.
“Really every practice you see it,” Bailey said. “Obviously we wanted to get more athletic in the room and I think we did that. Now it’s just developing them as receivers and getting the buy-in for what we’re doing.”
Though he hasn’t played in a game for Ball State yet, redshirt sophomore receiver Riley Miller has been practicing with the first team in the offseason. Head coach Mike Neu surprised him with a scholarship the week before classes began.
“Everybody’s happy for Riley and the reason for it is because he has everyone’s respect on this team. He works extremely hard, he’s extremely consistent, he does what he’s supposed to do, he’s a great student. When you have a guy like that in your room, and for him to earn that scholarship, it meant a lot to not only him but everyone on that team.”
Bailey said he expects Miller to hold onto the job.
“He’s going to play because he works extremely hard so you’ll see him out there,” Bailey said. I know he’s going to work hard every single day and when he gets a chance to get out there I know what we’re going to get from him.”
Miller has another ace up his sleeve — he already has experience playing with junior quarterback Riley Neal at Yorktown High School.
“I think when those guys are both in you can kind of see it,” Bailey said. “They have a kind of chemistry, they know each other really, really well and it pays off on the field.”
With the inexperienced receivers, Neal’s return from offseason shoulder surgery has been crucial. Freshman receiver Justin Hall, a 3-star recruit from Douglasville, Georgia, said the quarterback is playing well.
“He’s been putting balls on the money also helping out the plays. He’s really running the offense, running the show.”
Ball State also returns junior running back James Gilbert, who ran for 1332 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and Hall said the receivers practice the run game as well.
“It’s actually very crucial that we block on the outside because it’s really, most of the time, the safeties that make the tackles,” Hall said. “So we’ve got to get to those safeties and get them out of the way so JG can score more touchdowns.”
The receivers face their first test in Ball State’s season opener Sept. 2 at Illinois.