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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Ball State Cardinals offensive skill positions

The Drew Plitt to Justin Hall connection is back in Muncie, aiming for a second-straight MAC championship.

MAC Football Championship - Ball State v Buffalo Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The 2020 MAC champions return the full slate of offensive starters, with the exception of wide receiver Antwan Davis. This group, primarily comprised of juniors and seniors, has been through the entire roller coaster under head coach Mike Neu. From disappointing 2-10 records to an AP ranking and the first bowl victory in program history, Ball State’s veterans have seen it all. Now, it’s time to instill a winning culture in Muncie, Indiana.

Ball State exhibited a solid, balanced offense in 2020, finishing 24th in the FBS in scoring offense. The passing attack ranked 31st and the ground game ranked 52nd in terms of yards per game.

Quarterback

Drew Plitt is back for his third go-around as the Cardinals’ full-time starting quarterback. Plitt was a member of Neu’s initial recruiting class in 2016, so 2021 will mark his sixth season in Muncie. The quarterback delivered career-highs in accuracy (65.6 completion percentage) and yards per game (270.5) in the MAC title season. Plitt completed north of 60 percent of his attempts in all seven victories last season and improved as the season progressed.

His final four games — armed with higher stakes — featured 11 of his 17 touchdown passes on the season. Plitt attained his best day as a Cardinal in an early December win over Central Michigan, setting personal bests with 366 passing yards and four touchdowns. While he prefers to keep things in the pocket, Plitt managed a rushing touchdown in four of the final five games last year.

Plitt was the only Ball State quarterback to handle a snap last season, but two seasons ago, backup John Paddock received very brief experience during Ball State’s blowout win over FCS competition. Paddock will retain his role as Plitt’s understudy.

Running Back

Ball State suffered a massive loss midseason in 2020 when star running back Caleb Huntley opted out of the remainder of the season while dealing with an injury hardship. With 437 rushing yards and six touchdown through three games, Huntley was such an integral part of the offense. However, Ball State managed to adapt without its feature back and that homestretch in November and December prepared them well for life after Huntley.

Tye Evans is now the starter after producing solid numbers last season. His 94 rushing yards were vital to the MAC Championship Game victory over Buffalo, and he capped off his season with a touchdown in the Arizona Bowl. Evans, a bulkier back at 6’0” and 240 pounds, played almost exclusively on special teams in his prior two seasons with the Cardinals. Now, he’ll be a focal point of the offense, sharing the ground game with senior Will Jones.

Injuries allowed Jones to see the field often as a freshman, and after a mundane sophomore season, the halfback earned substantial playing time once again as a junior. Jones produced 276 yards and two touchdowns, saving his best performance for the last with 89 yards and a touchdown in the Arizona Bowl victory.

Wide Receiver

Justin Hall earned First Team All-MAC honors in 2020 — twice. In his fourth year as a starting receiver for Ball State, Hall was lauded for his efforts in propelling Ball State’s offense and also for his dominance in the special teams department. Hall is first in program history in receptions and stands a feasible 258 yards away from Dante Ridgeway’s receiving yards record.

Hall eclipsed the 120 receiving yard mark on three occasions last fall, earning MAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 10-reception, 175-yard, 2-touchdown showcase against Western Michigan. The multidimensional talent also applies his speed to the run game, often serving as a key cog on end arounds and jet sweeps. Hall obtained 231 rushing yards on 7.7 yards per carry last year. When factoring in his rushing production, he totaled at least 90 yards from scrimmage in all eight contests.

Outside of Hall, Ball State returns his partner in crime, Yo’Heinz Tyler. Tyler’s role within the offense has augmented each of his three years on the gridiron, peaking with 607 yards and a team-high eight receiving touchdowns in 2020. Hall is the primary deep threat in this offense and that role served him well in his 4-reception, 103-yard outing in the Arizona Bowl against San Jose State.

Antwan Davis declared for the NFL, leaving a vacancy at the third receiver option for the Cardinals. This is where Jalen McGaughy takes over and makes a name for himself. McGaughy only caught five passes in 2020, but he made them count. The former basketball and track star converted those five receptions into 171 yards and three touchdowns. His ability to high point the ball, along with his lethal speed, make him an intriguing prospect to watch in this offense.

The receiving group was also fortified by the addition of Jayshon Jackson, a transfer from a reigning New Year’s Six qualifier in Cincinnati. Jackson played a formidable role in the Bearcats’ offense, landing two receptions and 16 yards short of the team leaders from a year ago.

Tight End

Ball State starts a hybrid fullback/tight end who operates as a frequent receiving target. Cody Rudy, a member of the roster since 2016, started all eight games for the Cardinals last season and contributed 12 receptions and a handful of blocks. Rudy managed at least one reception in all seven wins last fall and checked in at fourth on the team in the category.

Former right tackle Dylan Koch also adds depth to the position. Serving more as a blocker due to his rich offensive line experience, Koch started two games in 2020 and subsequently caught the first four passes of his Ball State tenure. Like Rudy, Koch was a member of the 2016 roster in Neu’s initial year. Longevity seems to be a theme within Ball State’s program this season, and that experience could very well carry the Cardinals to their first ever back-to-back MAC championships.