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Third-year head coach Brady Hoke needs to catch a break. The Cardinals will be without their best player from a year ago, receiver Dante Ridgeway, who declared for the NFL Draft, and their top tailback, who was dismissed from the team in the offseason. Add to the equation the youth of this team -- just nine seniors are expected to play this fall -- and it looks as though Ball State could be at least a year away from serious improvement.
Hoke does have a solid core of young players back -- 15 returning starters -- with an experienced quarterback, more depth along the lines and better perimeter speed than in years past. The non-conference schedule is brutal, so if the Cardinals are to improve on their 2-9 record from a year ago, the damage will have to be done in league play.
Joey Lynch, the son of former Ball State head coach Bill Lynch, returns as the signal-caller after throwing for 1,126 yards and nine touchdowns as a part-time starter in 2004. Strong-armed Cole Stinson played in seven games (four starts) and threw for 1,101 yards, but the starting job belongs to Lynch.
"(Joey's) earned it," Hoke said. "He makes excellent decisions in our offense."
Ball State's offense took a hit in the offseason when leading rusher Adell Givens, the '04 MAC Freshman of the Year, was dismissed from the team. Larry Bostic, a speedy but undersized tailback, is recovering from knee surgery. That leaves Charles Wynn, a big back who rushed for 247 yards and three touchdowns last season, as the probable starter. Several freshmen, however, could make an immediate impact on the ground.
Losing Ridgeway, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, is a huge blow to the Cardinals' receiving corps. Not one of the returning receivers averaged more than 20 yards per game in '04. The Cardinals will be looking to Bryan Williamson (two touchdowns last fall) as their new go-to guy.
The tight end position is far more settled and could even be considered a strength. Junior Michael Steinhaus, who has the best hands on the team according to Hoke, should emerge as one of Lynch's favorite targets.
The Ball State offense averaged just 323 total yards a year ago, and many of the team's problems started up front. This offensive line allowed a staggering 39 sacks in 2004.
Ball State is looking for vast improvement along the defensive line after allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game and recording just 17 sacks last season.
Tom Kellar played hurt, but when healthy, he is a quality interior lineman. Amara Koroma and William Wise provide more speed and athleticism to the defensive tackle position. End Blair Kramer is the defensive line's leading returning tackler.
The strength of the defense will likely be its linebackers, Jason Sieman and Donta Smith, who ranked third and fifth, respectively, in tackles for the Cardinals last season. Wendell Brown played all 11 games as a true freshman, collecting 62 tackles. Brad Seiss is a talent in the middle and should be fully recovered from a serious wrist injury suffered last season.
Improved play from the secondary, which was responsible for just two interceptions last year, is a must if Ball State is to make any improvements defensively this season. Strong safety Erik Keys was overshadowed a bit last year by standout Justin Beriault, but Keys is a big hitter and a solid player.
The Cardinals must replace first-team All-MAC punter Reggie Hodges, the latest in a long line of quality specialists at Ball State. Brian Jackson is a steady placekicker who converted 12-of-16 field goal attempts last season. However, his longest kick was just 39 yards.
Ball State suffered key personnel losses, but Hoke does have a solid core of young players back. With a non-conference schedule that includes road trips to Iowa, Auburn and Boston College, the Cardinals will need to win games in conference play. Realistically, Ball State is likely a year away from making a move up the food chain in the MAC.