Spring Games the nation over are a mixed bag of results. You have the small-market teams that struggle for eyeballs and attention that do more for the fans than progression of the installed offensive and defensive gameplans. You have your large blue bloods that generate upwards of 50,000 for a glorified scrimmage with playcalling close to the chest and a cat that never gets let out of the bag. For Ball State on Saturday, it was certainly more of the former than the latter, but there was critical pieces of information that I was able to obtain that make me feel alright or dare I say positive about where the Cardinals are at for their 2015 campaign.
The position groups…
- Quarterbacks: The biggest thing I take away from Spring Game 2015 is that this offense is Jack Milas’ to do with what he wants. There’s an “-OR-” in the spring depth chart indicating the starting job was still an up for grabs TBD thing, but Milas’ grasp on the QB1 spot is as tight as its ever been. As it should be. Jack looked good from the get go and the offense was humming, marching down the field on its two opening drives with ease. Ozzie Mann saw time as well, and he showed a gorgeous deep ball on a 65-yard completion with near perfect accuracy, but the starting spot is firmly in the grasp of Jack Milas. Honestly, I’m pretty pleased with what I saw from both, as I don’t think there is going to be a steep drop off should something occur or a contingency plan is needed. I don’t think either are to the level of being able to positively determine the outcome of a game based solely on their skill or will a la Keith Wenning or Nate Davis, but I have moved the QB position from “concern” to “satisfied”, and that’s a good thing.
- Running Backs: The biggest offensive concern going in was how would Quake Edwards be replaced. Life after Quake won’t be the same, but it won’t be nearly as bumpy as expected, thanks largely to youth. The standout unexpected performance of the spring game was freshman James Gilbert who looked speedy, elusive, and explosive. He will give MAC defenses fits and was almost reminiscent of Corey Sykes. Sophomore Darian Green was somewhat limited in his opportunities but made the most of them, also demonstrating explosion and quickness. Teddy Williamson was Teddy Williamson, whose “average” is still pretty darn good. All in all, it was an exhale moment as the lack of Quake is going to take some getting used to but the depth at running back was of critical importance to see and feel given the injury to Horactio Banks.
- Wide Receivers: If you wanted a position group that you could watch that would give you an almost giddy excitement and optimism about the 2015 campaign, then this is the group to watch. The depth is outstanding, the skill is top-flight, and the ability for a big play is there on every snap. Jordan Williams? Star. Still. KeVonn Mabon? Star. Still. I hesitate to say this in terms of expectations, but I think Corey Lacanaria has the opportunity to be one of the best in the MAC from the slot. The thing that gave me the greatest enjoyment was knowing the others in the group like Chris Shillings, Aaron Hepp, Efe Scott-Emuakpor, or Jordan Hogue can spot relieve or step up themselves. It’s not hyperbole to say this is the deepest receiver corps in my time covering the team, by far the best group in the MAC, and I would argue top-to-bottom is probably in the level of most Power 5 conference schools.
- Offensive Line: As we talked about with former Card Ben Jacobi on the OTPcast a few weeks ago, there’s probably no harder group to judge than the offensive line. Either fans don’t know what to look for or it’s hard to see what’s going right given the only time a play is deemed successful for the group is when something bad (sack, penetration, etc) doesn’t happen. It’s easy to overlook the good. On Saturday, the offensive line had exactly the type of day I wanted to see, given that this is an experienced and deep unit. Let’s not forget that every starter from last year is returning. I seem to remember a few years ago when that happened that BSU rattled off 12 straight wins. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Jacob Richard, Jalen Schlacter, Jeremiah Harvey, Steve Bell, and Drake Miller may very well hold the difference between celebrating the holidays at home or coming back to work in middle January with a nice tan.
- Defensive Line: What was a concern before the game has quickly become a significantly less worrisome thing though still an area to watch. New to BSU transfer Josh Posley looked explosive and dangerous as an end rusher and showed signs of a Brandon Crawford type of ability with three sacks against a very good offensive line. That’s going to make life easier for the rest of the defensive front, as Michael Ayers, Osa Igbinosun, Darnell Smith, and Anthony Winbush along with others attempt to replace the likes of Bruce Heggie, Blake Dueitt, and Nick Miles. The line had issues for sure, as did the whole defense, but I think it’s safe to say this unit is more advanced than many thought it would be and Posley’s performance and ability to disrupt the backfield of an opposing team might mask some of the other problems.
- Linebackers/Secondary: I lump these two together simply because they are both suffering from injuries that make evaluating their performance difficult if not completely impossible. The secondary was missing two of their top three safeties in Dae’Shaun Hurley and Dedrick Cromartie and the linebackers were down Damon Singleton and Aaron Taylor. These two units didn’t look especially strong Saturday, and that does raise some legitimate concerns about depth and inexperience. The corners weren’t shutdown in any sense of the word, but I have a feeling that may be because of the immense amount of talent and depth at the receiver position on the offensive side of the ball. The missed tackles and poor form I’ll chalk up to the limited contact of spring ball and not a greater problem but time will tell.
- Coaching: There were significant worries about coaching related things like playcalling, aggression, and such that were clearly a bleed over from last season. The Spring Game is a controlled environment and a limited sample size, but the offense I saw on Saturday and the playcalling was night and day from last fall. Whether that’s a result of having a clear-cut starter and knowing exactly how to prepare and gameplan for his skills and abilities, or just a comfort in the position from Joey Lynch, it was a 180-degree difference from 2014. I’d say that’s a great thing given the lack of sure results from the defensive unit. If the offensive gameplan isn’t higher octane than we saw in 2014 it is going to be a very long season. Saturday, the Ball State offense was fun to watch, hard to stop, and running all cylinders.
- Depth: The receiver position group speaks to the overall feel of this program finally having the depth to overcome fluke injuries or fatigue issues. It’s a given at larger programs but harder to find in MAC-level schools, but the Cards’ possession of such a trait is a remarkable thing and a direct result of the Lembo regime and his redshirting philosophy. I’d say now is when consistent results are possible and the “Win for a year/drop off for a couple” way of doing things in the MAC may be in our rear view mirror. It is possible if not likely that you are looking at the beginning of a stretch of high performance. I hope you’re ready.
As we talked about in our Pregame Show on Periscope, one of the things I had almost written off as a certainty for the 2015 season was a throwback to a more traditional MAC approach. In other words, I was under the assumption that most of our conference games were going to be a “Whomever has the ball last is going to win a 50-45 affair”. I’m less in that camp now than I was then given the strides of the defensive front, but at the same point, as the offense goes this year so will go the season. A pedestrian simplified offensive attack that isn’t significantly more productive and more aggressive than last season and it could be a stretch to get to five wins. If the offense can hit its stride early and maintain, along with a 2008-esque “bend but don’t break and step up in big moments” approach from the defense then a post season opportunity is definitely within reach. That statement alone and my ability to make it says a ton about the overall performance from the spring game.
There’s still a ton of coverage from the Spring Game upcoming from the Pylon over the next several days. We’ll have more today on observations from Saturday, several behind the scenes video packages about some cool goings on at Scheumann Stadium, an awesome new premium seating opportunity, and even some aerial drone footage from The Scheu and some other campus landmarks. Stay tuned and Go Cards!