Second-year head coach Brady Hoke welcomes back eight starters from one of the most prolific offenses in school history, but the Cardinals will be without two graduated fifth-year senior quarterbacks who helped the Cardinals throw for a school-record 2,730 yards and 22 touchdown passes last season.
Defensively, Ball State must replace seven starters, but the Cards return All-Conference safety Justin Beriault, a quality linebacker in Donta Smith and 21 lettermen.
OffenseSophomore Joey Lynch is the only quarterback on the Ball State roster with any playing experience. Lynch completed all three of his passes for 47 yards and one touchdown last season. He will battle Todd Racine, who has the strongest arm according to coach Brady Hoke, and Casey Gillin for the starting job.
The Cardinals have plenty of options in the backfield. Scott Blair, the leading rusher in 2003 with 604 yards, will likely be the primary ballcarrier. The coaching staff expects true freshman Adell Givens to contribute right away. Former receiver Larry Bostic will also get a good look at running back.
Ball State welcomes back two starters on the line -- guard Jeff Ramsey and center Nick Tabacca -- along with letterwinners Justin Schneider at tackle and Ryan Steele at guard.
The team returns its top 11 pass catchers from a year ago, and the strength of the Ball State offense is at wide receiver. Last season, Dante Ridgeway became the third player in school history to top the 1,000-yard mark when he caught a school-record 89 passes for 1,075 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"We obviously had a very good receiving corps last season," Hoke said. "These guys will help smooth our quarterback transition."
DefenseThe defensive line returns two starters and nine lettermen from an undersized unit that gave up 197.6 yards rushing per game last year. The four players likely to start this fall average just 6-foot-2, 254 pounds per man. Tackle Conrad Slaughter is "the bell cow" of the group according to Hoke, a former defensive lineman at BSU.
Smith returns at middle linebacker after a 57-tackle season last fall. Former running back Brad Seiss has been moved to weak-side linebacker to replace Lorenzo Scott. True freshmen Wendell Brown and Byron Miles will have a chance to contribute right away.
Beriault, a first-team All-MAC safety, led the Cardinals with 145 tackles and added one interception and six pass breakups. He was a big reason Ball State ranked second in the MAC in pass defense -- though the Cards' inability to stop the run also played a part.
SpecialistsPlacekicker Brian Jackson returns after connecting on 11-of-16 field goals as a true freshman. He also proved to be a weapon for kickoffs and onside kicks. Reggie Hodges returns at punter for the Cardinals after sitting out last season.
Final AnalysisThe Hoke era got off to a nice start last fall. Following a 38-14 win over Toledo, the Cardinals were 3-1 in the MAC and in position to contend for the West Division title. But BSU stumbled down the stretch, losing its last four games by an average of 21 points.
Now, Hoke & Co. must regroup with some major questions at quarterback. Veterans Talmadge Hill and Andy Roesch are no longer around, and a new starter might not be named until the Monday prior to the '04 season opener. There are issues on the other side of the ball as well. Beriault is one of the top players in the league, but the rest of the Cardinals' defense lacks star power.
A very difficult schedule looms, with a home game against Boston College and road trips to Purdue, Missouri, Toledo and Bowling Green. A .500 record in Hoke's second season would have to be considered a major success.