MUNCIE – Time wasn't of the essence for Ball State football coach Pete Lembo in constructing his 2015 recruiting class. But it did play an important role in securing many of the 24 student-athletes that signed National Letters of Intent Wednesday to compete for the program.After five years of success and relationship building by Lembo and his coaches, the rewards have begun to pay off in terms of familiarization by Midwest high school coaches and confidence in the Cardinal program by their athletes, and the reward was Lembo getting a lot of early commitments from players during the recruiting process.
Over half of the newest Cardinals pledged their allegiance to the program by Labor Day of last year, so Lembo and his staff were afforded the opportunities to spend time strengthening that relationship, as opposed to always having to recruit the athletes.
“The thing that was such a pleasure,” Lembo said, “was being able to spend additional time getting to know the vast majority of these recruits and their families on an even deeper level.”Ball State added 10 offensive and 13 defensive players, as well as heralded kicker Morgan Hagee out of Plainfield High School. Included among the offensive signees was All-State quarterback Riley Neal from nearby Yorktown High School.
Neal finished one of the most prolific careers in Indiana high school football history by leading the Tigers to an 11-win season, as he totaled nearly 4,400 yards of offense and accounted for 56 touchdowns as a senior. But more importantly to Lembo was that he served as a team captain, which is a sign to the Cardinal coaching staff that they'll be a good fit for this program.
“What stands out to me the most is the maturity of these guys,” Lembo said. “We're (signing) 19 team captains in this group. I'll put that up against any signing class in America. It speaks volumes about what we look for here.”
That “maturity” is imperative for the players to possess in a number of ways, but on the field, it lends itself to being able to comprehend the amount of work that it takes to get in the playing rotation, which Lembo said, all will be given that opportunity.
At a recent team meeting, Lembo informed the Cardinals that he views just one player (fifth-year senior center Jake Richard) as a starter following a season in which Ball State failed to be bowl eligible, every other position is up for grabs.
“Maturity is one of the key factors to playing early,” Lembo said. “We certainly hope that some of these guys come in with that mindset that they are going to play early.
“It's well documented about our efforts to redshirt through the last four years and the dividends of that, but we don't want guys coming in and settling for that before it even happens.
“Come in and compete and show that you're the best.”
One of those freshmen that may be able to do so is Chicago-area defensive lineman Kevin Thurmon, who spurned offers from Purdue and Wisconsin. He, along with Neal and other notable signees such as defensive lineman John Whitman (Lackawanna Community College), running back James Gilbert (Arsenal Tech High School), and defensive back Armani McNulty (Bolingbrook (Ill.) High School) are just some of the newcomers that will be given a serious look next August.
“The more freshmen that we have that take that (mature) approach,” Lembo explained, “and push themselves up the depth chart, the better our team is going to be.”
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