The 2022 season was yet another rollercoaster campaign in Muncie, and it ultimately ended in disappointing fashion.
Ball State posted a 3-1 start to MAC play, and was positioned nicely to capture a West division crown. However, the Cardinals squandered their mid-season opportunity. Amidst offensive struggles and a recurring paralysis in close games, the cardinal and white dropped three consecutive contests to close out the year.
The squad’s 2022 record (5-7) marked the second consecutive losing season for Ball State, making the upcoming 2023 campaign critical for the program and the fate of its head coach, Mike Neu.
The Cardinals will enter its crossroads season sporting a new-look squad, after considerable production left the program this offseason.
Here are some of the major concerns and notable improvements for Ball State heading into its upcoming season:
Questions in the quarterback room
Ball State’s 2022 season saw inconsistency under center.
John Paddock, the squad’s starting quarterback last season, enjoyed a few breakout performances — most notably against Northern Illinois on October 1 (403 yards, three touchdowns).
Despite his flashes of brilliance, Paddock, ultimately, struggled to lead his offense. In Ball State’s three losses to end the season, the Cardinals gunslinger threw for just 486 total yards and two touchdowns, while tossing four interceptions.
With Paddock now at Illinois, the cardinal and white are looking to name a starting quarterback who can more effectively propel their offense this season.
A pair of Cardinals — Layne Hatcher and Kiael Kelly — have emerged as top contenders for the starting job.
Ball State acquired Hatcher through the transfer portal this offseason, after he spent a combined five years at three schools: Alabama (2018), Arkansas State (2019-2021), and Texas State (2022).
The sixth-year transfer started at quarterback in each of his seasons at Arkansas State and Texas State, proving to be a high-level passer at both schools. Across his four seasons in starting roles, the Little Rock, Ark. native logged 10,080 passing yards and 87 total touchdowns, and he earned the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year award in 2019.
Hatcher’s unrivaled experience will be pitted against Kelly’s youth in the battle for the QB1 title.
Kelly will enter the 2023 season as a redshirt sophomore, after spending two years learning from the Cardinals’ coaching staff and upperclassmen.
The Tampa, Fla. native came to Muncie as a prized high school recruit, earning a three-star ranking from 247Sports in the 2021 recruiting class. In his prep career, Kelly passed for 5,000 yards and 60 touchdowns, rushed for 21 touchdowns, and notched all-state honors.
Though Kelly has not seen enough on-field action to accurately measure his abilities, his athleticism and dual-threat play style, nonetheless, make him a strong prospect for the top quarterback spot.
Both Hatcher and Kelly could command the starting job independently, but their unique skill sets and potential to contribute could force Neu to develop a two-quarterback system.
Recharging the running back spot
Carson Steele — one of Ball State’s top running back talents in program history — opted to hit the transfer portal upon the conclusion of last season, ultimately choosing UCLA as his destination.
Steele was the Cardinals’ top offensive weapon for the past two years, and his short career in Muncie was punctuated by an impressive sophomore campaign in 2022. Last season, the stout back posted 1,556 rushing yards — the ninth-most in FBS — and 14 touchdowns across 289 carries.
Although the void left by the All-MAC first-team honoree is considerable, Ball State’s coaching staff found capable replacements for him, after an active offseason in the portal.
Former Kent State star Marquez Cooper headlines not only the new additions in the running back room, but he also leads the program’s entire transfer class. The rising senior has been one of the MAC’s top rushers since his first season in 2020, and his production last year previews the firepower he will bring the Cardinals’ backfield.
As a junior in 2022, Cooper rushed for 1,331 yards, logged 13 rushing touchdowns, and caught eight passes for 94 yards. The five-foot-seven inch rusher earned first-team All-MAC honors for his efforts a year ago, and he will almost certainly be Steele’s replacement as Ball State’s top running back.
Ball State’s rushing attack was also aided by the signing of Indiana transfer Charlie Spegal.
Although Spegal saw limited action during his stint in Bloomington, he showed immense potential in his high school days. While playing at nearby New Palestine High School, Spegal broke the Indiana’s all-time rushing record by posting 10,867 yards over his career.
The redshirt junior gained a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed runner while in high school, an attribute which will pair nicely with Cooper’s lighting speed, and will make him a goal line threat.
Big shoes to fill in the secondary
The Cardinals’ secondary was among the most talent-rich units in the conference last season, with three of its defensive backs (Nic Jones, A.J. Uzodinma, and Jordan Riley) earning All-MAC selections.
Given Ball State’s rich talent pool, a trio of Cardinals’ defensive backs (Jones, Uzodinma, and Jaquan Amos) were plucked away by NFL teams over the offseason.
The presence of the cardinal and white’s three NFL signees will certainly be missed in Scheumann Stadium, as the three players combined for 167 tackles, 24 pass deflections, and six interceptions in 2022.
Consequently, restoring the secondary was a clear goal for coach Neu and company when approaching the portal this season. The Cardinals coaching staff landed two transfer defensive backs, who will likely contend for a starting role — alongside returners Riley and Tyler Potts.
DD Snyder is the younger of the pair of signees, as he will enter the 2023 season as a redshirt sophomore. The Tampa, Fla. product spent the first two years of his career at Illinois, where he saw limited action for the Fighting Illini.
Despite serving primarily as a scout team player in his first two seasons of collegiate play, Snyder’s pedigree as a high school recruit provide insight into his potential. The six-foot corner was rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports, and received offers from a handful of Power 5 programs — among his high-level suitors were Indiana, Louisville, and NC State.
Providing valuable experience to the Cardinals’ reconstructed secondary will be Old Dominion graduate transfer Damion Charity.
The sizable cornerback saw the field in each of his four seasons for the Monarchs, though starting in just one game across his years in Norfolk. Despite his limited playing time, he showed flashes of his abilities, logging 18 tackles and one pass deflection through 13 contests in 2021.
This is the first in a series of Ball State football previews, with our next piece addressing offensive skill positions. Please look forward to that!
Ball State’s season kicks off Saturday, September 2nd at 12 p.m. Eastern time in Lexington, Kentucky, where they are set to play the Kentucky Wildcats.