It’s a new era in Muncie, IN.
For the first time since 2017, Justin Hall will not step foot onto the gridiron for Ball State. Hall’s accomplishments during his tenure were enough to earn him local legendary status for generations to come. He is the program recordholder in a multitude of statistical categories, ranging from Ball State’s all-time receptions leader to the team’s all-purpose yards leader. Last year, Hall held status as the FBS active leader in receptions and receiving yards. He departed from college at ninth place on the FBS career receptions leaderboard, and in his final game last November, he tied the record for most consecutive games with a reception (54).
How do you replace that impact?
It won’t be easy, but Ball State’s notable vacancies at the offensive skill positions extend further than just Hall. An immense vacuum opened at the quarterback position last Christmas after longtime signal caller Drew Plitt started his final game for the Cardinals in the Camellia Bowl. The sixth-year senior quarterback led Ball State to a coveted MAC championship in 2020 along with the program’s first bowl win in the Arizona Bowl, securing MVP honors in both postseason victories. His absence creates another void Ball State must address in an offseason filled with heavy turnover.
Luckily for Ball State, the team generated experience at quarterback last fall which could ease the blow. Redshirt junior John Paddock became better acclimated to the collegiate game last September in lopsided non-conference affairs against Penn State and Wyoming, completing 18-of-32 passes for 132 yards. He tossed one interception in those contests and still awaits his first touchdown pass as he enters his fifth year on the Cardinal roster.
Like Plitt, Paddock’s game is primarily concentrated within the tackle boxes. His high school tape displays his immense arm talent, as he threw for a blistering 4,000+ yards en route to all-state honors at Bloomfield Hills in Michigan. But like many reserve quarterbacks that participate in one-sided blowouts, Paddock didn’t deliver his passing attempts far from the line of scrimmage during his limited reps.
Still, his experience overwhelmingly exceeds that of any other quarterback on the roster. Redshirt freshman Kiael Kelly, who has yet to throw a collegiate pass, is Paddock’s likely understudy on the depth chart. The rest of the quarterback room is primarily composed of true freshmen, who account for three of the four remaining faces.
When Plitt replaced Riley Neal as Ball State’s starter several years ago, he had the luxury of operating with Hall in offensive sets. While Paddock does not get to work with multi-time First Team All-MAC selection this year, he is still gifted with an emerging receiver talent who could feasibly earn all-conference honors come December.
Jayshon Jackson transferred into the program after holding a steady role in Cincinnati’s wide receiver corps from 2018 through 2020. But landing in Muncie unlocked Jackson’s true potential. He ranked first among all Cardinals with 69 receptions and 829 receiving yards last year, earning one of 43 spots on the Biletnikoff Award preseason watchlist for the nation’s most outstanding pass catcher regardless of position.
Jackson concluded his breakthrough 2021 campaign with a career-high 146 receiving yards on 12 receptions in the Camellia Bowl. In that game, he also fulfilled Hall’s duties as a rusher — earning four carries on an offense known for its affinity for the jet sweep. The former Bearcat also played a contributing role to the rushing attack when Hall missed the Central Michigan game, so expect heavy utilization out of Jackson in 2022 in the form of both a receiver and rusher.
The receiving corps also returns one of its most seasoned members in Yo’Heinz Tyler. Tyler served as a valuable deep threat during the 2019 season, but he rebranded his style to play a more pivotal presence around the sticks last fall. He recorded a career-best 49 receptions on 9.9 yards per catch while snagging a team-high six touchdowns. Tyler, who played a major part in Ball State’s 2020 postseason victories over ranked Buffalo and San Jose State teams, now sits 10 touchdowns away from Darius Hill’s No. 1 spot in the program record books.
Outside of Jackson and Tyler, the receiver depth thins out in terms of experience. Ball State had four other wide receivers haul in multiple receptions last season — including talented deep threat Jalen McGaughy — but all four of these receivers are no longer apart of the roster.
This lack of depth made pursuing a receiver from the transfer portal a necessity this offseason. That’s exactly what Mike Neu and his staff did, acquiring Vanderbilt wideout Amir Abdur-Rahman. The redshirt junior started eight of nine games for the Commodores during their 2020 SEC-only schedule, amassing 406 yards to rank second on the team. Abdur-Rahman completes a viable trio with Jackson and Tyler, but the supporting cast behind those three still needs to be sorted out. Ball State currently exhibits five true freshmen receivers on the roster, and some of these youngsters may play an expanded role as a reserve.
The Cardinals’ offense has recent success with deploying true freshmen. Look no further than Carson Steele. Now that he’s a sophomore, the halfback looks to create an even greater footprint in the offense. Nicknamed “Thor” for his resemblance to the Marvel superhero, Steele laid down the hammer to lead Ball State with 891 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, while playing a serviceable role in the receiving game. Steele is a power runner by nature, and defenders struggled tackling his 6’1”, 215 pound frame, especially in his three 100+ yard performances during conference play last year. He’ll continue to be a focal point in this transitioning offense, and by operating as a lead back to start the season, a 1,000-yard season is a probable outcome.
Will Jones has served as Ball State’s secondary halfback for quite some time, and he’ll continue to thrive in that role in his fifth season suiting up for the team. Similar to Steele, he takes on the form of a power back and operates as a short yardage receiving threat. Jones bullied his way to 300 yards last season, witnessing more frequent usage before Steele’s sudden emergence in conference play. Serving alongside Jones as a secondary back will be Donny Marcus, who enters his third year in Muncie. Marcus’ stats at Ball State are limited to 32 carries and 122 yards, but he excelled in increased playing time in the 2020 Arizona Bowl with 10 carries and 69 yards — the only time he received more than five touches in a single outing.
Ball State’s traditional-style offense features the fullback more than most FBS schemes, and the Cardinals must replace Cody Rudy, an effective blocker who corralled 16 receptions in 2021. The role could be fulfilled by 5’8”, 252 pound true freshman back Shoka Griffin II, or one of several developing tight ends could serve as the successor.
The Cardinals must also figure out that tight end situation, as Ryan Lezon is the only incumbent roster member with a reception, and his career total stands at one. Lezon is the projected starter at the position, and depth could potentially come in the form of Casey Coll. Casey is the brother of starting inside linebacker Clayton Coll and made a name for himself as a special teams contributor in his first season after transferring from the NAIA level.
Overall, Ball State has plenty of work to do in restocking the skill positions in its balanced offensive attack. The running back position remains the most stable, thanks to the emergence of Steele last October combined with the reliable support of Jones and Marcus. The receiving corps is top heavy, but the jury remains out on the depth behind the triumvirate of Jackson, Tyler, and Abdur-Rahman. The quarterback and tight end positions feature a lack of experience, and the Cardinals may experience growing pains in fulfilling those spots, especially without help from the transfer portal.
2022 is shaping up to be a rebuilding year for Mike Neu and company after the program enjoyed the benefit of fielding a senior and super senior-led team in the previous two seasons. Ball State’s new-look offense will face its first test against Tennessee on Thursday, Sept. 1 in a road trip to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.