BY MAX DENARI | Ball State Sports Link
With the Ball State football regular season starting Friday, the atmosphere for Mid-American Conferencee and NCAA Division 1 football to return to Scheumann Stadium is definitely of excitement and anxiety.
While the home opener is still two weeks away, the Cardinals open the 2016 season Friday against Georgia State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The last handful of seasons have been dominated or headlined by Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, with Bowling Green winning the MAC Championship in 2013 and 2015. Northern Illinois has appeared in the MAC Championship the last five seasons (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) and won the championship in 2011, 2012 and 2014. They are the obvious teams with targets on their backs.
Ball State and new head coach — the 1993 MAC Player of the Year — Mike Neu are recharged and ready to get the season underway.
The former Cardinal was hired as the program’s 17th head coach in January after spending the previous two seasons as the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints.
In preparation for the season, I engaged in a handful of short one-on-one interviews with senior linebacker Aaron Taylor (#7), senior linebacker and team captain Sean Wiggins (#3), junior running back Darian Green (#23), senior linebacker Zack Ryan (#2) and sophomore quarterback Riley Neal (#15).
W/ Aaron Taylor:
Max Denari: Aaron, as a senior, how do you try to help out the underclassmen and the new guys on the squad throughout the season?
Aaron Taylor: It really starts in camp, in pre-season training. The coaches are trying to figure out who can help us out now and who might need to redshirt. We are going to have a lot of freshman that can help us out this year and contribute to the program. We just try to get them reps and experience in special teams, in practice, etc. If we see them making mistakes, we try to coach them up, go back and analyze things, see what they can do better, what they can improve on and what not.
Max Denari: What are your personal goals for this season, seeing as it is your senior year?
Aaron Taylor: I have always had the same goal. Be All-Conference, be an All-American. My goal is to be successful this year. I want us to go and win a championship. That is a team goal too, to win a conference championship. I have been saying for four years I want a championship and this is the final year I can help the team do that. We would love to get to a bowl game, and play well and get the ‘W’ there as well. My team goals and personal goals line up.
W/ Riley Neal:
Max Denari: As the man taking the snaps, what do you expect to be different your sophomore year vs. your freshman year when you threw for just over 2,200 yards?
Riley Neal: Definitely expect a few more wins this year, first of all. We just worked on everything all off season and coming into the camps. We keep progressing in everything we do. Make sure to learn and be confident in the offense and then we just go from there.
W/ Zack Ryan
Max Denari: What are you most looking forward to this season?
Zack Ryan: Obviously, that first game. For sure. We have been grinding through camp, we have a new set of coaches this season. They have really brought the energy to the locker room and the team meetings. Overall, as a team we are all really excited for the first game.
Max Denari: What have been your primary focuses during the preseason?
Zack Ryan: Top of the list is definitely staying healthy, getting a lot of film work in, learning the plays and things that our coaches want us to learn. You have to know what is going on. Obviously it is a little different out on the field during an actual game, but if you are not putting the time in for the film, then you will be lost when it comes to key game time moments.
W/ Sean Wiggins:
Max Denari: What are the pre-season preparations for defense and what do you focus on specifically?
Sean Wiggins: We have been working on key individual things, for whatever a player’s position is, and his task in that position. In camp, we put in the time everyday, working to improve and get better at each position, and with that we can become better as a team.
Max Denari: How do you personally go about helping out the underclassmen on the team?
Sean Wiggins: You have to go about different approaches for different players. Kind of learn how a certain guy takes criticisms, make sure to build them up and teach them how they can improve and how they can get better at whatever they are doing.
W/ Darian Green
Max Denari: What are your overall expectations for yourself this season?
Darian Green: I would say, just to stay healthy the whole season as well as start off fast and explosive every single game.
Max Denari: What will be different in terms of last season vs. this season from your perspective?
Darian Green: I will be seeing more experience and more playing time, which in turn gives me more ability to grow. Knowing how to deal with new situations that might come my way.
Overall, the Cardinals focused on the details and refinement of skills during their pre-season sessions and camps. This football team is energized with the likes of motivated seniors, talented underclassmen and new coaching staff.
Georgia State won last year’s meeting in Muncie on Oct. 17 by a score of 31-19. The statistics were nearly identical, but Georgia State scored touchdowns in all four trips inside the red zone while Ball State settled for two touchdowns and two field goals.
From the game notes:
- Listen to the game on SL Radio on 91.3 WCRD with Connor Onion, Cory Stace and Matt Organ.
- Ball State has won six consecutive season openers dating back to 2010. However, the Cardinals have not played a true road game in a season opener since 2005. This will also be Ball State’s first game played inside a dome since the 2012 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg against UCF.
- Senior WR KeVonn Mabon enters the 2016 season 110 receiving yards short of 2,000 for his career. Mabon ranks 10th on the school’s all-time list. He nished second on the team in both receptions (70) and receiving yards (745) last fall. Mabon tallied seven receptions for 55 yards in last year’s meeting against Georgia State.
- All of the key specialists from 2015 are back on the squad this year – sophomore K Mor-gan Hagee, senior P Kyle Schmidt, senior LS Nick Traub, kick returners KeVonn Mabon and Darian Green, and punt returner Corey Lacanaria.
- Ball State led the MAC and ranked third nationally in fewest penalties per game (3.67) and fewest penalty yards per game (35.42) last year. In seven of the 12 games last year, the Cardinals committed no more than three penalties.