The Ball State athletic marketing department has never lacked for creativity or effort, but moving forward, that staff may simply want to stick with a straight-to-the-point slogan in selling its football program: Young AND talented.
You can thank me later for the suggestion.
If Ball State did choose to market the program in such a manner, there would be no claims of false advertising, because it is indisputable that second-year coach Mike Neu and his assistants have developed a promising group of student-athletes.
“Those (young) guys are tough,” Neu said following the Cardinals' recent 51-31 rout of UAB at Schuemann Stadium in Muncie. “I am glad that they are on our football team.”
In that victory, there were a multitude of Cardinal athletes – of all ages - that made significant plays, which ultimately led to the runaway victory. However, there were certainly an inordinate amount of young players that seized the opportunity to make a play of impact.
Sophomore runner Malik Dunner got Ball State on the scoreboard first with an eight-yard bolt through the UAB defense for the first of his two scores on the day. He later squashed the Blazers' momentum following a touchdown with a 93-yard kickoff return.
“Malik has one of the tougher jobs on the offensive side of the ball,” Neu told The News-Sentinel recently, “because we ask a lot out of him. Not only does he play running back, but we also move him out to the slot. We move him several different places, because we don't want to take a guy like (star runner) James Gilbert off of the field, so we try to create opportunities where (Dunner) gets touches and he's explosive.”
When Dunner wasn't helping take away the defensive focus on Gilbert Saturday, freshman wide receiver Justin Hall was doing his part.
The Georgia native caught a team-best eight passes for a nice bounce-back effort after fumbling a ball away a week earlier against Illinois.
Hall was so productive Saturday that the Cardinals' reception leader in the season-opening loss (redshirt sophomore Riley Miller) only caught one pass against UAB.
“We don't have just a go-to guy,” Neu said. “That is not the type of offense that we run. All of the guys, we try to give them several different opportunities throughout the course of the game to get their number called. And some days, one guy is just a little bit hotter than the others.”
Dunner and Hall exhibited the speed to create opportunities, while freshman running back Caleb Huntley channeled his inner-Jahwan Edwards and bulled through a wall of UAB defenders and broke free for a 52-yard scoring run. He finished with a team-best 89 yards rushing after tearing off a 28-yard run against Illinois.
“Caleb did a great job,” Neu said. “Malik did a great job. We've got a running back by committee and we've got to continue to mix it up.”
The Ball State offense wasn't the only place where young players could make their mark.
Neu and first-year defensive coordinator David Elson have taken a chance by starting a pair of true freshmen (Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson) at safeties, but Cosby made their confidence pay off Saturday by leading the Cardinals with eight tackles (including six solo).
The young players not only fared well against UAB, but they had their moments in the season-opening game at Illinois, a game in which Ball State outplayed the Illini for a large portion of it.
“The stage is not too big for them,” Neu said. “The look in their eyes on the sidelines, and throughout the course of the game, I love the look. The look is 'I want the ball. I want to be in a position when the game is on the line. I want to be in a position to make a play when my team needs me.'
“I love that look.”
If this level of productivity and growth continues among the 25 first-or-second year players that fill the Cardinals' two-deep depth chart, the Cardinal Nation will also find a lot to “love” about this team.
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