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2023 Ball State Cardinals Positional Previews: Offensive skill positions

The Cardinal and White’s key offensive positions will be manned by a plethora of newcomers in 2023.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last season, Ball State averaged just north of 384 yards of offense per game — the fourth-highest mark in the MAC.

Despite the Cardinals’ ability to move the pigskin, they fell in the bottom third of the league in points per game (23.3 points/game).

The cardinal and white’s offense featured a clear disconnect between gaining yardage and pushing the ball across the goal line. With key contributors departing this offseason, rectifying this offensive issue will be in the hands of a fresh group of skill position players.

A slew of new names occupy the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end roster positions for this year’s Ball State squad, and many of them will likely see considerable action.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Texas State at South Alabama Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


  • John Paddock (transferred to Illinois)
  • Kaden Cobb (transferred to Howard [FCS])
  • Mark Nondorf (entered transfer portal)


  • Layne Hatcher (transfer from Texas State)
  • Kadin Semonza (incoming recruit)


  • Kiael Kelly
  • Colin Blazek
  • Aidan Leffler (also cross-listed as TE)

While assessing their teams through summer practices, coaches are often tight-lipped when the media look to gain insight on high-profile position battles — particularly at the quarterback spot.

Ball State head coach Mike Neu opted for a different approach at the recent MAC Media Day in Detroit, as he answered a question looming in the mind of his fan base for months.

Under the lights of the grand Fox Theatre, Neu notified the press that transfer quarterback Layne Hatcher will lead his offense in the season-opener against Kentucky on September 2 — effectively ending the competition with redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly (according to Gus Martin of The Star Press).

The expedited delivery of Neu’s monumental announcement reveals that he and his coaching staff treasure the experience that Hatcher brings to the Cardinals’ offense.

The six-foot, 210-pounder will be a sixth-year graduate student this season, easily making him the most seasoned option in an otherwise young quarterback room.

Hatcher selected Ball State through the transfer portal in the offseason, and he arrived in Muncie this spring after spending five seasons at three programs (Alabama, Arkansas State, and Texas State). Though he did not see the field for the Crimson Tide, the Little Rock, Ark. native was the starting gunslinger in each of his seasons at Arkansas State and Texas State.

Hatcher’s finest years came while playing in the red and black of Arkansas State from 2019 to 2021. While suiting up for the Red Wolves across three seasons, he collected the 2019 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year award, All-Sun Belt Honorable Mention honors, and a bowl victory — while also logging over 7,400 yards and 65 touchdowns.

Despite his early success, the journeyman is coming off a mediocre campaign for Texas State in 2022. Leading his Bobcats crew to a 4-8 overall record, Hatcher recorded 2,653 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.

Ball State fans can expect of their new starting quarterback a play style similar to that of last season’s starter, John Paddock. Hatcher is a traditional pocket passer who seldom looks to make plays on the ground, which is evident in his career rushing statistics (-144 yards and three touchdowns).

A notable difference between Hatcher and his predecessor, however, is his unique arm strength. The veteran torched Sun Belt defenses through the air with his signature deep balls, exemplified through his 30 career games with at least one pass over 40 yards.

Although Hatcher was recently chosen in favor of his more youthful competitor, Neu opened the door for Kelly to appear in some specific packages. Ball State fans should expect to see the Tampa, Florida native in select situations which may call upon his dual-threat skills, or in a more pronounced role — should things go awry for Hatcher.

Though he has only seen the field once at Ball State, Kelly flashed his talent while playing against strong Florida prep competition. The six-foot-two quarterback passed for 5,000 passing yards and 60 touchdowns, and rushed for 938 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career.

Running backs

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  • Carson Steele (transferred to UCLA)
  • Will Jones (graduation)
  • Donny Marcus (transferred to Gannon [Div. II])
  • Shoka Griffin II (transferred to Bluefield State [Div. II])


  • Marquez Cooper (transfer from Kent State)
  • Charlie Spegal (transfer from Indiana)
  • Christian Davis (incoming recruit)
  • TJ Horton (incoming recruit)


  • Rico Barfield
  • Vaughn Pemberton

The Cardinals’ air attack was particularly inconsistent in conference play last season, which often forced the squad to rely on its running game for production. All-MAC running back Carson Steele was the centerpiece of Ball State’s strong rushing assault in 2022; with his departure to UCLA, new faces will look to continue the Cardinals’ pedigree on the ground.

This offseason, the Ball State coaching staff manufactured a strong incoming class of running backs, complete with a pair of high-value transfers and two high school recruits.

Marquez Cooper headlined the Cardinals’ offseason additions in the running back room, as the former Kent State star has been one of the MAC’s top rushers in recent seasons.

The speedy five-foot-six back logged over 1,200 rushing yards each of the last two years for the Golden Flashes, and earned All-MAC honors in 2021 and 2022 for his efforts.

Cooper will almost certainly command the starting spot, given his experience and proven track record.

Indiana transfer Charlie Spegal joined Cooper in the trek from the transfer portal to Muncie. The former Hoosier saw little action in Bloomington, but his success at the prep level have many around the program excited. While playing for football powerhouse New Palestine (Ind.), Spegal broke the Indiana rushing record by notching 10,867 yards over his career. Unsurprisingly, he was named Indiana’s Mr. Football and Gatorade Player of the Year in 2019.

The redshirt junior’s wide 221-pound frame will make him a weapon in goal line situations, an attribute which should earn him considerable playing time in 2023.

The Cardinals’ duo of freshman running backs will likely have far less significant roles than their more experienced teammates, but they could blossom into valuable assets in the future.

Christian Davis, of Miamisburg, Ohio, enters as the Cardinals’ second-ranked prospect in the 2023 class — according to 247Sports — and he held 11 FBS offers before committing to Mike Neu’s staff.

TJ Horton, a product of Lexington, Kentucky, was rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports, and he led his Frederick Douglas High School squad to a state title as a senior. He will join forces with his high school teammate, sophomore line backer Caden Johnson, this season for the Cardinals.

Ball State’s core of running backs will also be aided by a pair of returners, Rico Barfield and Vaughn Pemberton.

Pemberton, a redshirt sophomore, saw the second most action of any Ball State running back last season, logging 133 yards on 35 carries. Also a redshirt sophomore, Barfield carried the ball admirably in his 15 attempts last season, rushing for 60 yards.

Wide Receivers

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  • Yo’Heinz Tyler (declared for NFL Draft)
  • Jayshon Jackson (graduation)
  • Amir Abdur-Rahman (declared for NFL Draft)
  • Cam Gillentine (transferred to Saint Francis [NAIA])
  • Dean Tate (not listed on roster)
  • Derin McCulley (entered transfer portal)


  • Ty Robinson (transfer from Colorado)
  • Zavier Simpson (transfer from Wake Forest)
  • Ahmad Edwards (transfer from Jacksonville State [FCS])
  • Malcolm Gillie (JUCO transfer)
  • R.J. Mukes (incoming recruit)
  • Isaiah Thacker (incoming recruit)


  • Qian Magwood
  • Dwayne Moorehead
  • Brayden Evans
  • Brody Glenn
  • Austin Hill
  • Nick Munson
  • Dahya Patel
  • Cam Pickett
  • Nick Presley

The Cardinals’ 2022 receiving core featured a wealth of experience, with each of the squad’s top three receivers (Jayshon Jackson, Yo’Heinz Tyler, and Amir Abdur-Rahman) playing their fifth seasons at the collegiate level.

With last year’s veteran presence comes a gaping void in the receivers room this season, as each of the aforementioned pass catchers either graduated or entered the NFL Draft. By Jackson, Tyler, and Abdur-Rahman exiting the program over the offseason, Ball State will need to replace a unit who collectively earned -percent of its receiving yardage last season.

As it was with the other skill position groups, the Cardinals coaching staff was active in the transfer portal to find immediate remedies for the team’s production loss. In total, Ball State drew commitments from four transfer wide receivers (Ty Robinson, Ahmad Edwards, Zavier Simpson, and Malcolm Gillie).

Among the four receivers in the Cardinals’ transfer class, Robinson (a Colorado transfer) and Edwards (a Jacksonville State product) look the most poised to hold critical roles in 2023.

Robinson played two seasons for the Colorado, and, though his action was limited, he was opportunistic in his time on the field. The sizable six-foot-three target hauled in nine passes for 95 yards, and scored a touchdown across his two seasons in Boulder.

The former three-star recruit (according to 247Sports) will provide valuable Power 5 experience to a generally inexperienced receiving group.

Edwards arrives in Muncie after spending five seasons at FCS power — now FBS newcomer — Jacksonville State. While suiting up for the Gamecocks, the six-foot-one receiver logged 78 receptions, 1,128 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns in his career.

The rising sixth-year senior showed flashes of being a long-ball threat as he averaged over 19 yards per catch last season — a characteristic which could make him a target for loud plays in 2023.

Additionally, Ball State inked a pair of talented class of 2023 receivers — R.J. Makes and Isaiah Thacker — who could see the turf in their freshman seasons.

Although the Cardinals fortified the receiving position by signing a number of players, some of the squad’s returners are also positioned for strong seasons.

Sophomore Nick Presley is the returner who saw the most action a year ago, and he will fiercely contend with his incoming peers for receptions in 2023.

As a freshman last season, the Cincinnati native appeared in 10 outings for the Cardinals, and even started against UConn (Oct. 15). Across his playing time, he snatched six catches for 35 yards.

Tight Ends

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 01 Ball State at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


  • Casey Coll (graduation)
  • Ryan Lezon (transferred to Butler [FCS])


  • Christian Abney (incoming recruit)
  • Preston Ross (incoming recruit)
  • Jeffrey Simmons (transfer from Miami [OH])


  • Brady Hunt
  • Tanner Koziol
  • Justin Morris
  • Max Sullivan
  • Maximus Webster
  • Aidan Leffler (also cross-listed as QB)

This offseason was a whirlwind for coach Neu’s program, as it ransacked some position groups, and bolstered others.

For a Cardinals roster which saw major shuffling, key returners at the tight end spot provide much-needed stability. The incumbents of the tight end core will not only bring valuable experience, but also a haul of accolades from last season.

Brady Hunt and Tanner Koziol — the squad’s preeminent tight ends — both enjoyed breakout campaigns as freshmen in 2022. Greatly exceeding their preseason expectations, they both landed a place on a number of Freshman All-America lists, and Hunt earned All-MAC First Team honors.

Given their awards and production last season, Hunt and Koziol will not only lead Ball State at the tight end position, but they will also be primary targets in a receiving core that is without three of its top targets from a year ago.

Cardinals fans can expect the duo to be especially potent in redzone situations. Last season, the pair of tight ends capitalized on their long, full frames to become magnets for touchdown passes, with Koziol hauling in a team-high seven touchdowns and Hunt snatching five.

The presence of Hunt and Koziol will likely force the squad’s other tight ends to patrol the sidelines for most of the season. However, the position group is rich in talent — if the Cardinals need to call upon other options.

Most notably, Miami of Ohio transfer Jeffrey Simmons could be a contributor in his first season dawning the cardinal and white. The strong 6-foot-6-inch target was a standout at Fishers High School (Ind.), and drew considerable attention as a prep recruit — landing offers from Power 5 programs, such as Indiana and Rutgers.

This is the second in a series of Ball State football previews, with our next piece addressing the offensive line. Please look forward to that! If you missed our first part, you can read that here.

BSU’s season kicks off Friday, Sept. 1 at 12 p.m. Eastern time in Lexington, Kentucky, where they are set to play the Kentucky Wildcats.