MUNCIE – The difference between Ball State first season under football coach Pete Lembo and this, his second season, can be epitomized in one player, Jahwan Edwards.
The sophomore running back is expected to be a wrecking ball to opposing defenses in much the same manner that he was last season. However, the difference is, in 2011, Lembo had to play Edwards a lot because he had few other options. Fast forward to tonight's season-opening game at Schuemann Stadium with Eastern Michigan (7 p.m., ESPN3) and Lembo is playing Edwards, as well as a horde of other runners, because he wants to, not has to.
“One thing that jumps out at me, and this is something that the staff and I talked a lot about a few days ago, is I feel like we have more guys that we are comfortable putting in a game right now,” Lembo said. “If you look at last year's roster at this point, we had some guys that were injured, we had some transfers that were ineligible, and then we had a handful of guys that were with us, but whether they were completely on board, especially in that first year at this point, was not taken for granted.”
No position is more indicative of that increase in talent and depth than the running back position. Lembo has four quality athletes that he can rotate into the game against the Eagles, and when senior Dwayne Donigan returns from injury, he's “questionable” for tonight's game according to the coach, that number will increase to five.
“It is definitely a management issue,” Lembo said. “(Running backs coach) Justin Lustig does a really nice job of balancing that.”
How deep are the Cardinals in the offensive backfield? Junior Toney Williams spent a couple of seasons at Tennessee before transferring to Ball State last season and he isn't even listed on the depth chart.
Lembo has stressed during training camp this month that Williams will get opportunities to showcase his ability, but for now he is listed as trailing Edwards and redshirt freshman Horactio Banks.
Another luxury that Lembo has entering tonight's game is the fact that he can limit how much activity junior Barrington Scott gets.
“One thing that always seems to be the case with running backs is that you never have all of them healthy at one time,” Lembo said. “Typically if you have four or five that can play for you, one to two of them are less than 100 percent at any given time.”
That is the case not only for Donigan, but also Scott. The Snider High School graduate is still recovering from a broken leg suffered last season against Eastern Michigan. Scott can certainly play tonight – and will – but Lembo doesn't have to overwork him like he might have last year.
“Barrington has been progressing well (but) I don't think that he is 100 percent yet,” Lembo said. “But he has been improving in practice.”
In regards to Edwards, Lembo might run out of superlatives by mid-season due to the fact that he has done nothing but praise the sophomore throughout camp.
“I can't say enough about him,” Lembo said. “This is a guy that just gets it. Some of the questions that he asks are so mature and so sophisticated. You think about where he was at when we recruited him, and where he was at when he first got here, it just gives me goose bumps.”
Edwards ran for 786 yards as a true freshman and scored 11 touchdowns. And according to Lembo, he's even better today after shedding some weight.
“He's a special guy,” Lembo said.
Having said all of that, Lembo spoke of Edwards having to share the workload with Banks, due to his development and ability.
“Horactio has arguably grown up more than any player in our program over the last year,” Lembo said. “If you ever want a poster child for the redshirting concept, take a big ol' picture of Horactio. He has really just transformed himself as a person over the last year. So we've got some good guys there and by the time that we get to mid-season, I'm sure that we are going to be calling on all of them.”