MUNCIE – The wind whipping across the turf at Schuemann Stadium was biting over the weekend, but it never had a negative effect on the Ball State football players or coaches as they worked through the second of 15 spring practices.
Second-year Cardinal coach Mike Neu noticed, as did a horde of recruits and high school coaches that spent the morning watching the drills and learning first hand what Neu is instilling – both schematically and philosophically - in this program.
“We are really happy with the focus and the attitude and the energy,” Neu told The News-Sentinel. “The first couple of days you could say that it is a little chillier than we would like it to be, but I appreciate the focus from start to finish.”
The “finish” of games last fall was a problem that Neu is seeking to rectify.
The Cardinals finished 4-8 in Neu’s debut season (1-7 in the Mid-American Conference), but faltered late in five of those defeats.
Ball State led Northern Illinois 17-10 before losing 31-24.
The Cardinals were driving in the final two minutes of their game at Central Michigan before an interception killed a rally and they lost 24-21.
They led Akron 17-14 in the second half before losing 35-25, and were beating Eastern Michigan 41-40 with 1:35 remaining before allowing a late Eagle score.
In Ball State’s season finale, Miami (Ohio) scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5:44 left in the game to seal a 21-20 win.
It isn’t a stretch to say the season could have been vastly different if not for a handful of plays.
“Guys are practicing with a purpose,” Neu said. “They know that we were not OK with where we were at last year. We are not OK with that and the only way that we are going to change that is to take advantage of every day that we have.”
Neu and his coaching staff have “taken advantage” of every recruiting day that they have had this off-season, and even some that they didn’t have.
The Cardinal coaches aren’t allowed to recruit off campus right now, but at Saturday’s workout the recruits were strolling along the sidelines getting an up close look at how the Cardinals are working to improve.
“We’re trying to sell having the number two recruiting class in the MAC,” Neu said, “and I think kids are seeing excitement (in our program).”
So are the coaches.
The Ball State 2017 recruiting class was ranked second in the MAC by 247Sports and Cardinal defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson was named as the league’s Recruiter of the Year for this class by the web site.
In addition, Neu brought in veteran coach David Elson to serve as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, and the former Western Kentucky head coach was “blown away” by what he saw in the program and campus during his recruitment by Neu.
“I never really spent any time in Muncie hanging out or on campus,” Elson said recently, “I went for a run through campus and I was absolutely blown away. It’s unbelievable.”
Former Ball State coach Pete Lembo often likened the Ball State campus to a private college environment and the ever evolving football facilities are making the program an easier sell by the day.
“People make decisions on feelings,” Elson said, “and you go through that campus and it is a positive vibe. It’s professional and clean and it’s really, really nice.”
The Cardinals completed the Ron Venderly Football Center last fall and on Saturday all of those recruits were getting a first-hand look at the place as Cardinal Director of Player Personnel Tilmon Clark led the tours for the high school prospects.
“I said to Mike,” Elson recalled, “We can recruit here. We have enough bling in this building and then you get the recruits on campus and I think they’ll like it a lot.”
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