If Ball State football fans are looking for any positive signs in the wake of the Cardinals' 38-17 loss to Central Florida in Friday's Beef O'Brady's Bowl, it is that prior to Pete Lembo's arrival, there was a lot of attrition throughout the program.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Because a fair amount of players left the program in preceding years before Lembo arrived in Muncie, he and his coaching staff have spent the past 24 months filling in those gaps with younger players – that perhaps weren't quite ready to play – but were forced to anyway. The result is the program enters 2013 with a lot of young players that paid dues over the past six months and are going to be even better on Aug. 29 when they face Illinois State in Schuemann Stadium.
Here's a breakdown of areas for next season and what Ball State fans can expect.
OK, let's start with an area of concern so that you feel better as you wrap this column up.
Ball State loses five (Austin Holtz, Chris Sparrow, Kitt O'Brien, Dan Manick and Cam Lowry) veterans, which played superbly this fall. However, the cupboard isn't completely bare either.
Matthew Page (senior to be) is capable of playing either tackle spot, while Jacob Richard (sophomore to be center) started the final four regular season games.
Jalen Schlachter is a huge (6-foot-6, 311 pounds) sophomore to be capable of playing either guard spot opposite senior guard Jordan Hansel, who started 11 games this fall.
The biggest concern isn't the starters along the offensive line; all of the aforementioned players have demonstrated the ability to compete in the Mid-American Conference. What is Cardinal offensive line coach Nick Tabacca's biggest responsibility in spring football is to develop the back-ups to those guys in case of injury.
Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning will have a full arsenal of weaponry available to him next season.
The Cardinals return not just their best receivers (Willie Snead, Jamill Smith, KeVonn Mabon, and Connor Ryan), but young players such as the sophomore to be Mabon and classmate Jordan Williams (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) will be even better after getting a year of experience at the collegiate level. Add junior to be Chris Shillings and the depth at this position is incredible.
And if that depth at receiver wasn't enough, one of Wenning's favorite targets, senior to be Zane Fakes returns.
Fakes caught 51 passes this season and is regarded as the best pass-catching tight end in the conference.
His classmate, David Schneider, was reliable until suffering a serious leg injury at Toledo, so his return is questionable at this point. However, sophomore to be Dylan Curry got better and better as the season progressed and will definitely be a defensive problem in the upcoming three seasons.
The Cardinals have almost a sickening wealth of riches at this spot.
When senior to be Barrington Scott is third on your depth chart, you are unbelievably good for a MAC program.
Sophomore to be Horactio Banks is a really good change of pace back to the Cardinal Most Valuable Player in Friday's bowl game, junior to be Jahwan Edwards.
These guys will only be as good as the offensive line plays, but they should be dominant next year.
Wenning returns for his senior season. That's all you need to know about this spot.
Well, that was enough positive news for a while.
No one notices the punter or placekicker until they shank one late in the game, which rarely happened this season with punter Scott Kovanda and kicker Steven Schott. Both are finished at Ball State and their absence leaves a massive hole in Lembo's attack.
Junior to be Scott Secor handled the kickoff duties this season, but needs to improve on his accuracy to seize the field goal job as well.
Incoming freshman Steve Drida out of West High School in Waukesha, Wisc. will have every opportunity to win the kicking job as well.
Smith will more than likely be relied upon for return duties in his final year at Ball State next fall.
Jonathan Newsome returns and that is one heckuva starting point. The senior to be had a dozen tackles for a loss this past season, including 8 ½ sacks. He'll enter next fall as the most feared pass rusher in the MAC.
Throw in veterans Michael Ayers, Nick Miles, Kennan Noel, and Osa Igbinosun (ends), Nate Ollie, Joel Cox and Harold Hogue (tackles), and this is a formidable group.
We'll get the final area of concern out of the way before ending on a high note. Ball State graduated leading tackler Travis Freeman (119 tackles), along with Tony Martin and Justin Cruz. That's a lot of production that just walked out of the complex.
Who will replace them? That is anyone's guess right now.
Senior to be Kenneth Lee (four starts in 13 games) is the most experienced player at this point.
Sophomore to be Trent Toothman played in four games before having his season end due to injury at Kent State.
Sophomore to be Ben Ingle played in 11 games this season, but after those guys? Help is wanted.
Junior to be Julian Boyd (seven games) and Avery Bailey (one game) are also candidates that will get a look during spring ball.
What was perhaps the Cardinals' most exposed area this past season, should be greatly improved next year simply due to several players having played a ton of football.
Christopher Calloway (junior to be) and Quinton Cooper (senior to be) played in a combined 24 games this season, while junior to be Eric Patterson (cornerback) and classmate Brian Jones (safety) also are back after playing extensively this year.
Jeffrey Garrett started 11 games at corner as a junior, while J.C. Wade (junior to be) and sophomore to be Chris Pauling were on the field a great deal, as well.
Another nice return will be strong safety Jarrett Swaby, who transferred from Central Florida after graduating last year, but still has a year of eligibility remaining.
So the Cardinal secondary has lost of bodies competing for time, which always pays off at every position.