By: Steven Lassan | 6/3/11, 1:41 PM EDT
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#111 Ball State
MAC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rich Skrosky | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Bateman
New Ball State coach Pete Lembo operates a no-huddle attack but emphasizes that it’s not a spread. Lembo likes to mix and match his groupings to fit his personnel and the situation, but he’s partial to the passing game. Elon, Lembo’s previous stop, ranked second among all FCS teams last year with 322.4 passing yards per game.
During spring ball, sophomore Keith Wenning and junior Kelly Page battled to win the right to operate the pass-first offense, and the rangy Wenning is the favorite to build on his streak of 10 consecutive starts.
Ball State retains the top three receivers from last year, including senior slot man Briggs Orsbon (28 catches), but Lembo envisions three true freshmen providing immediate impact. Willie Snead enrolled early and got a jump on the split end spot, while Lembo likes the size that 6'4" Trey Gardner and 6'3" Jacolby Owens provide.
Third-team All-MAC running back Eric Williams (613 yards) decided to transfer in June, leaving Cory Sykes and David Brown to battle for carries. Sykes is the likely starter, but missed a chunk of last season with knee tendinitis.
Ball State returns two full-time starters on the line in guard Kitt O’Brien and tackle Dan Manick, as well as four others who made at least five starts in 2010.
New defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who made the move from Elon with Lembo, spent the spring teaching the many looks Ball State plans to spring on MAC schools this year.
The Cardinals welcome back five veterans who started every game in 2010 — an accomplished group led by second-team All-MAC safety Sean Baker (school-record 16 career INTs). Junior corner Jason Pinkston earned third-team All-MAC honors with four interceptions last year.
Junior middle linebacker Travis Freeman ranked seventh in the MAC last year with 109 tackles. Bateman moved sophomore Aaron Morris from safety to strong-side linebacker to boost the crew’s athleticism.
Nose tackle Adam Morris anchors the four-man defensive front, but there’s not a proven pass-rusher in the group. Perhaps true freshman Nick Miles, who recorded 17 sacks as a senior in high school, can become that guy.
With second-team All-MAC kicker Ian McGarvey out of eligibility, junior Steven Schott and redshirt freshman Scott Secor are battling to be his successor. Williams will be missed on returns, after averaging 25.5 yards per kickoff return (including a 92-yard TD scamper against Eastern Michigan) last season. Punter Scott Kovanda enjoyed a banner spring.
Lembo inherits a program that won only six games in the last two seasons — and has only two winning seasons in the last 14 — so it’s not like the Cardinals are poised for a rapid turnaround.
On the other hand, there are a few seniors who contributed significantly to the 2008 team that opened 12–0 and rose as high as No. 12 in the BCS standings.
That means a good chunk of the squad knows what’s necessary to win games, but it’s going to take time as the Cardinals digest the new offensive and defensive schemes.
The win total might be similar to last year’s, but Ball State is on the right track. Lembo is a proven winner who should have his program relevant in the tough MAC West in the near future.