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And In That Corner … The Ball State Cardinals


When it comes to MACtion, even the most-devout midweek viewer usually skips games involving Ball State. The Cardinals have won three conference games total since 2014 and have not posted a winning record since going 10-3 the year prior.

Thus, even an avid college football fan does not inherently know much about No. 8 Notre Dame’s opponent this weekend. This is where Ryan O’Gara of the Star Press comes in …

DF: I will admit, I always start this off thanking my counterpart for both the time and the thought needed for the answers, but that sentiment may be even more true this week. To be blunt, I do not follow Ball State much (read: at all). While just keeping a finger on the national pulse can keep me informed about Michigan and Florida State, and even Navy and Syracuse, I rarely find myself reading anything about the Cardinals. Obviously, this year is the exception.

That said, you certainly know Ball State. How many years have you been on the beat at this point?

RO: This is my second season covering Ball State full-time. I have helped out on coverage at various points of my three and a half years with the Star Press.

Last season was a rough one, even by Cardinals standards. Ball State has not had a winning season since 2013, but finishing 2017 with a nine-game losing streak speaks to a trend very much going the wrong way. Of course, injuries played a part in that, but what else went wrong?

Most felt head coach Mike Neu walked into a tough situation in 2016, as recruiting had dropped off during Pete Lembo’s final years at Ball State. And then Neu arrived so close to National Signing Day, he really didn’t have much time to recruit. So 2017’s class, ranked fourth in the MAC, was his first opportunity. When injuries hit last season, the Cardinals did not have the requisite depth to endure. They also had some really bad luck. How many teams can say they had to start four quarterbacks and seven offensive line combinations due to injuries?

Cardinals junior quarterback Riley Neal threw for 659 yards in three starts last season before a leg injury ended his season. To that point, he had completed 67.7 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns against three interceptions. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

One of those injured, junior quarterback Riley Neal, returned last week with an efficient flourish in leading the Cardinals past Central Connecticut State, 42-6. He finished with 259 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-30 passing. That is nearly surghical. How much of that was a credit to Neal compared to a criticism of (old on, need to search for the proper mascot name here, oh, of course) the Blue Devils’ defense?

I give a lot of credit to Neal while of course acknowledging that CCSU will be one of the worst defenses Ball State will face this season. And to think, Neal’s best receiver (Justin Hall) dropped a wide-open 41-yard touchdown pass deep down the middle, so Neal’s numbers could have read 24 of 30 for 300 yards and three touchdowns. How’s that for surgical? The most notable element of that performance was Neu’s accuracy on deep balls, which he has struggled with in his career. He had several downfield throws in which the receiver didn’t even break stride.

Neal’s most-frequent target was somewhat expected, sophomore receiver Justin Hall with five catches for 38 yards. True freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler broke out, though, with two receptions for 83 yards and two touchdowns. On paper, the two are quite different. Hall is 5-foot-9 and shifty, while Heinz is 6-foot-4 and a more traditional big-play threat. Maybe not two catches for two scores, but was such generally expected of Tyler?

Tyler is a true freshman with a ton of potential. Most importantly, he has a skill set that Ball State sorely lacks with its two starting receivers being 5-9 and 5-8. He can go up and get the ball, and it’s almost weird how easy he makes it look, even in practice. There was a ton of buzz regarding Tyler in the preseason, but then he didn’t even play in the first half of the opener. When he got in, he clearly made the most of it. I’m anticipating he’ll see more snaps against Notre Dame, but really we may not see him on a full-time basis until later in the season. At the bare minimum, I think he should be on the field in the red zone, either as a decoy or a legitimate option.

Flipping sides of the ball, there is no subtle way to ask this … How in the world did Ball State give up 40.7 points per game last year? Obviously, allowing 5.0 yards per rush does not help the cause, and the MAC is often a high-scoring league, but 40?

It was a disaster. Ball State couldn’t stop anyone last season, and the defense didn’t have the excuse the offense had with the injuries, but the offense does have to bear some of that responsibility, too, because when you are going three-and-out, you’re giving the opposing offense good field position and not allowing your defense to rest. Switching to a 3-4 has helped already this season. I like Ball State’s two outside linebackers, Ray Wilborn and Christian Albright.

Cardinals head coach Mike Neuhas gone 7-18 in his two seasons plus one game at Ball State, his first head coaching gig. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

Let’s take a quick turn to the macro. Every collegiate coach in every sport feels the ground shift a bit beneath him or her when a new athletic director comes to campus. Beth Goetz arrived in Muncie this summer and Neu has gone 6-18 in his two seasons. Is there reason for him to worry about his job, or has Goetz genuinely preached patience?

Good question. That’s something I asked about as well, because I didn’t know the answer. I would say that in the third year of a five-year contract, Neu isn’t in danger yet, but another season like 2017 would really hurt Neu’s chances of getting another contract, obviously. But Goetz really seems to like Neu and the vibe around the program. She was at most preseason practices and interacted frequently with members of the program and fans of the program. She seems very confident that Neu will elevate the program, at least for the time being.

Before getting to a prediction request, curiosity insists on asking, is there a buzz around Ball State about this matchup at Notre Dame? The two have never played despite being fewer than 150 miles apart. Do you sense that proximity will lead to a decent amount of red in South Bend this weekend?

I’m not sure about how much red will be in the stands, but I know folks in Muncie are genuinely excited about this matchup. How could you not be? It’s Notre Dame, a program so many in Indiana have grown up rooting for, or at the very least, watching on TV.

And how about that prediction? Can the Cardinals keep it closer than the 34-point spread predicted by bookmakers?

I think Ball State will cover. I think Notre Dame will roll, but I’m also wondering if this may be a game that Brian Kelly uses to take advantage of the new redshirt rule. Maybe some Notre Dame freshmen see some time in the second half, and that keeps it within the spread. I’m going with Notre Dame 48, Ball State 17.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.