MUNCIE – Ball State graduated 11 starters (and 17 lettermen) off its 10-victory squad from a year ago, so it would only seem natural for Thursday’s opening-day practice to seem a bit discombobulated with all of those departures. Throw in the addition of 20-plus new players and it could have been chaos run amok on the field turf of Schuemann Stadium.
“Not at all,” fourth-year coach Pete Lembo said afterward of any awkwardness. “You want to get off to a smooth start. You have a lot of new players and you want to get them acclimated and make sure they know where they are going and where they need to be.
“You want to come out here with a sense of normalcy even though you’ve got new guys stepping into new spots, and we certainly had that.”
The practice did have a strange aura for those that witnessed it due to some of those “new guys in new spots.” Gone were former Cardinal stars Keith Wenning, Jonathan Newsome, Zane Fakes, and Willie Snead, among others. But by about the third or fourth 5-minute segment of work, it became business as usual, and it did so because those “new guys” have to move on.
One such player is redshirt sophomore Ozzie Mann, who is battling with redshirt freshman Jack Milas to replace Wenning, who drove out of Muncie as the most prolific thrower in Ball State history. Though Mann is new to the role as a potential starter, Thursday was actually his third “first practice” of his career with the Cardinals. So all of the lessons learned in terms of what to do and how to do it were being applied by Mann.
“It was a little different,” Cardinal quarterback Ozzie Mann said of Wenning’s absence. “The two years before this I’ve learned a lot from him. Keith was a great role model for me.”
Mann and Milas have been under constant scrutiny ever since the end of the GoDaddy Bowl in January. Each snap, each meeting, each team function, and each weight-lifting session, are being watched carefully by the Ball State coaching staff (as well as the Cardinal fan base) and will be considered in determining who will be the starter in the season-opening game against Colgate (Aug. 30, 2 p.m. at Schuemann Stadium). Mann understands and accepts the responsibility that comes with his position.
“I definitely did,” Mann said of handling things differently now. “I know that I have to step up because Keith is gone. One of us has to step up and it’s going to be somebody.”
Similar to Wenning, Mann isn’t the most boisterous guy on the field, but there he was with frequency Thursday showing enthusiasm for good plays and cheering his teammates. He’s doing what he can to grow into the leader that Wenning was.
“Being more vocal doesn’t come natural to me,” Mann said. “But you can lead in many ways without being vocal.”
You can lead by doing running drills with the skill players, which Mann has voluntarily done often this off-season.
“Doing that makes me push myself,” Mann said. “And it shows my teammates that they can have trust in me.”
That “trust” was evident in a lot of veteran members of the Cardinal program Thursday. After four seasons under Lembo, there are a myriad of ways in which the players have taken control of this program and the coaching staff doesn’t have to micromanage every detail.
“This practice had the feel of a 13th or 14th spring practice or an October practice,” Lembo said. “Hey, it’s year four. We’ve got a culture in place and these guys are taking ownership themselves.
“They are bringing the younger guys along, and you hear a lot of older guys on the side coaching each other and demanding the little things. It’s great. We have 10 coaches out here, but we have a lot of players being great advocates, as well.”