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Former Ball State offensive stars finalize transfers

QB Riley Neal and RB James Gilbert leave Muncie for the SEC and Big 12.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

December means transfer season, and as a result, Ball State’s offense will be lacking two veteran pieces next year. Quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert thrived in starting roles on the Cardinals’ offense as early as 2015, but the two have landed new homes as graduate transfers.

Riley Neal

Neal, a senior who has been Ball State’s primary starting quarterback since 2015, announced a transfer to Vanderbilt earlier this month. The Yorktown, IN native threw for over 2,000 yards as a freshman and sophomore at Ball State, but injuries derailed his final two seasons. Neal saw action in 22 games during his first two seasons of college football, but only played a total of 12 games in 2017 and 2018.

Each time Neal suffered an injury, Drew Plitt served as the replacement under center. After several rough starts, Plitt finished the season with a 340-yard outing against Toledo and an impressive win over Western Michigan in which he completed 81 percent of his passes. Instead of a potential QB battle next fall with Neal, it seems likely Plitt has locked up the job in Muncie.

As for Neal, Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, finalized his career as a Commodore after a 45-38 loss to Baylor in the Texas Bowl. That allows the experienced Neal — third in Ball State history for passing yards — to swoop in and assume the starting role for Vanderbilt.

Before suffering a season-ending torn meniscus, Neal was enjoying another solid season for Mike Neu’s program. He recorded a career-high 402 yards passing in a 52-24 win over Kent State while throwing four touchdown passes.

James Gilbert

Gilbert also began contributed for the Cardinals in 2015, but he launched onto the scene after an unforgettable sophomore campaign. During a breakout 2016, the Indianapolis native rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Similar to Neal, a season-ending injury hampered his production in 2017, as Gilbert saw just three games of action in the rough 2-10 season. Gilbert returned with a 100-yard performance in the 2018 opener but his usage rate slightly declined. Mike Neu and the Ball State offense split Gilbert’s carries with running backs Malik Dunner and Will Jones late in the season, and Gilbert failed to surpass the century mark for the remainder of his Cardinals career.

At Kansas State, Gilbert will be a member of the first-ever Chris Klieman-coached Wildcat team. The former leader of North Dakota State’s FCS dynasty replaced the legendary, recently-retired Bill Snyder in Manhattan earlier this month, and changes have already been present within Kansas State’s personnel. Former Kansas State running back Alex Barnes — ninth in the FBS in rushing yards — declared for the draft after a highly successful run as a junior, so Gilbert could take over the starting role next fall.

Ball State’s offense will have a slightly renovated look next year without its typical quarterback and running back, but the replacements will be familiar faces. Plitt has thrown 215 passes for the Cardinals, and the returning running backs — Malik Dunner, Caleb Huntley, and Will Jones — have carried the ball 433 times out of the backfield.