On just the second day of training camp, the atmosphere at the Scheumann Family Indoor Practice Facility felt different. Although the Cardinals weren’t in full pads and were encouraged not to go full throttle to prevent injury, Ball State football was playing as physically as allowed.
Cheers erupted from respective units when the offense or defense made a big play, defensive lineman exploded through crash pads held by assistants on the sidelines and every one-on-one matchup was highly competitive between wide receivers and cornerbacks.
After the loss of multiple All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) team members, starting quarterback John Paddock and the failure to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2019, a hungry atmosphere surrounds Ball State Football.
Head coach Mike Neu expected this when the Cardinals returned to the turf after the offseason, but hoped they would keep the same energy throughout the rest of camp. Involved in the game of football nearly his whole life and going into his eighth season as Ball State’s head honcho, Neu realizes the “all football all the time” mentality of training camp can be draining after the initial excitement wears off.
Three weeks later, just days ahead of their week one matchup against the University of Kentucky, that hungry atmosphere remained.
“I really like the look in our guys' eyes right now,” Neu said.
In seven of the eight MAC contests the Cardinals played in 2022, the result was decided by one possession, which Neu said came down to Ball State’s -4 turnover margin in those games. He likened those situations to shooting yourself in the foot, acknowledging many of the Cardinals' losses last season were self-inflicted.
While the offensive approach is to limit turnovers, the defense wants to force as many as possible.
“We need more turnovers as a team,” junior defensive back Jordan Riley said. “All the games we lost, we lost in the turnover battle. We are just trying to get more fumbles and get more picks.”
While much has been made of the uncertainty at wide receiver, the same can be said at defensive back on the other side of the ball. Robinson said he feels the two groups with perhaps the most to prove going up against each other in practice should only make each side hungrier.
With Ball State’s top three previous defensive backs getting their shot in the NFL, Riley said the “younger group” in the secondary is getting reps and feels like the secondary is in a good place.
Redshirt senior defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts said the secondary is trying to come together to ensure everyone is on the same page, including the new additions. He said the practices are time spent working on passing routes and a couple of different concepts to get everything hammered down.
Potts said he is focused on working every day to be able to make game-changing plays that can end up winning games.
“The heavyweight of the secondary is really on my shoulders,” Potts said.
Riley said the Cardinals want to put the defense on the field first in games, so getting a stop, fumble, or interception is going to be vital.
“I feel like, as a defense, we have to establish a religious mentality coming out and hitting everybody,” Riley said.
The Ball State defense is anchored by its linebacker group, including graduate student Clayton Coll, senior Sidney Houston Jr. and redshirt senior Cole Pearce. Neu said the trio are all great leaders, great mentors and exceptional football players with their high football intelligence.
“[They are] just guys that do things the right way and do business the right way,” Neu said.
Coll credited the linebacker's success to the number of snaps and football played. Their experience is what they have to offer most.
“Some people say [linebacker] is the quarterback of the defense, so there has to be somebody that's not afraid to be vocal and communicate because [he] is in the center of the defense,” Coll said. “You have to communicate with DBs [and] you have to communicate with the front seven, so you have to communicate at a high level.”
Pearce echoed the high confidence level this year, with himself, Coll and Houston Jr. coming back to boost morale.
The new defensive linemen have also bought into the process of Ball State's defense. Pearce said they have been able to come in and work well with the playbook, even predicting the defensive line to be the best in the MAC.
Neu said the additions that the defensive line has picked up in the transfer portal and the returning players are going to make a big difference to the line. He said the group is pushing each other and is competitive.
“[I] really love that group of guys and we're gonna need them all,” Neu said. “I share the same feelings that Cole [Pearce] does, I love that group of guys and I know they're ready for the challenge and they want to respond and be the group that can lead our defense to great football that we can count on.”
Defensive line graduate student Mikhari Sibblis, who transferred to Ball State for this season, holds the same high expectations for the Cardinals.
“I wouldn't be surprised, that's actually our goal [on being best in the MAC],” Sibblis said. “It's not honestly to even be the best in the MAC, it is [to be the] best in the nation.”
Coll said this is the best he has ever felt going into a season mentally. He said players participated in a lot of player-led workouts in the summer that the group sunk its teeth into, buying into the process and goal for the season.
“I really feel like this team could really be special,” Potts said. “Expect big things from this defense.”
The Cardinals open up their season squaring off against two Southeastern Conference (SEC) programs as they travel to Lexington, Kentucky, in week one to face the University of Kentucky before heading to Athens, Georgia, to battle two-time reigning National Champion and No. 1 ranked University of Georgia.
“It's a challenging start to the schedule, but we'll embrace that and we'll work our tail off and we'll get ourselves ready to go,” Neu said. “We just got to execute at a high level, [and] we got to do the little things extremely well.”
Potts said it doesn’t get much better than opening the season against Kentucky and Georgia. He said Ball State is going to face a different kind of competition and skill in those games that will prepare them well for MAC regular season games.
With MAC schools rarely selling out their stadiums, Riley said he is looking forward to the experience of playing in a full stadium to open the season against Kentucky and Georgia.
Coll, who experienced SEC football first-hand when Ball State opened up against the University of Tennessee last season, said a lot of Cardinals are close friends or even best friends, so walking out onto a football field whether it is night or noon is something he cherishes.
“The feeling of walking out in a football stadium in August, or in September, you can't match it,” Coll said.
Neu said developing team chemistry, such as that displayed by the linebackers group, with the mix of Cardinal mainstays and transfers comes down to one approach: love.
“We gotta get to know one another so that when we are in some of those critical situations and games, you're really invested in the other guy,” Neu said. “You won't let somebody fail if you love them.”
The mission statement for Ball State football in 2023 is simple: return to heights not reached since 2020 and win a MAC Championship.
“If we want to accomplish something great, it takes a lot of sacrifice,” Neu said. “We have to make sure the intensity level and competitive juice are at an all-time high every single day to have a chance for that to happen.”
When asked if the 2023 campaign is a defining one for the Cardinals, Coll said any season could be defined as such, and began to reflect on his time at Ball State.
“I think there's a lot that we've left on the table,” Coll said. “It hurts to say it.”
Coll spoke about the ups and downs he and the program has experienced throughout his career, finishing 5-7 his first season, winning the MAC Championship, the Arizona Sun Bowl and finishing No. 24 in the final AP poll his second season, finishing 6-7 with a loss in the Camellia Bowl his third season, and then another 5-7 season in his most recent.
He thought about specific losses that hurt the most from that time period. A last-minute loss on a game-winning field goal from Northern Illinois in 2021, who went on to win the MAC title later that season. A one-possession loss to Toledo in 2022, who also captured the conference crown that season.
“It's like we're a few games away from this being a totally different career,” Coll said. “I want to leave this place with a legacy for these younger guys to look up to. I want to be a multi-time MAC champion. I want to be a multi-time bowl game winner because not very many guys in this program can say that, and not very many people in college football can say that. I just want to leave this place better than I found it.”
Ball State is set to face off against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky, at Noon Sept. 3, where the spread has the Cardinals as 26.5-point underdogs.