While CMU's defense struggled at times last season, its linebacking corps was often one of the best in the MAC. Both Shamari Benton and Justin Cherocci flourished in defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin's newly employed 4-2-5 defensive set. With the graduation of Benton, it is Cherocci who will lead the CMU defense into its pivotal 2014 campaign.
Like many football players who fill the rosters of the Mid-American Conference, Cherocci received little interest during his recruitment process. Playing for legendary Michigan high school coach Al Fracassa at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he performed well at recruiting camps but ultimately received little interest from FBS schools. Hoping to make an impact with a CMU program that was about to enter a rebuilding phase, Cherocci walked-on to the Chippewas, where he redshirted during the 2010 season.
In a limited role during his first season of action, Cherocci flashed significant potential. Playing in every game during the 2011 campaign, Cherocci made his first major impact in an otherwise mediocre game against NC State, where he led the Chippewas with 11 tackles. He followed that up with a solid showing in CMU's homecoming game against Eastern the following week, totaling 10 tackles in a loss to the Eagles. These showings and others made a strong impression on his coaching staff, who named him as a starter at linebacker during for the 2012 season.
Cherocci emerged as a vengeful force for the Chippewa defense during his first starting season. He ended the year with 132 tackles, good for fifth in the MAC and 19th in all of college football. He also tallied 89 assisted tackles, which led all schools in the FBS. Cherocci had especially inspiring performances in wins against Iowa, Akron, and UMass, and was impressive in his first postseason appearance against Western Kentucky in the Little Caesars Bowl. At the end of the season, Cherocci was rewarded for his efforts by being named Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the Chippewas.
Cherocci followed up on his 2012 campaign with an equally impressive 2013 season. Transitioning into a newly installed defensive set, Cherocci led both the Chippewas and the MAC with 121 tackles. Cherocci made a name for himself in the Chippewa pass rush, leading them team with four sacks and ranking second in tackles for loss with 9.5. He also recorded his first career interception in a loss to Northern Illinois. For the second season in a row, Cherocci was named one of Central's Defensive Players of the Year, and was later on nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, an honor given to the best college football player to begin his career as a walk-on.
Heading into his final season of college football, expectations are at an all-time high for Cherocci. Phil Steele lists Cherocci on his preseason All-MAC second team defense, alongside offensive line teammates Nick Beamish and Andy Phillips. He was also named to the Lombardi Watch List, given to college football's best lineman or linebacker.
With one year of college football left to play, Cherocci will look to continue his career in the NFL. Currently, he is in similar standing with many of his accomplished CMU teammates; likely a target to be extended a rookie free agent contract, but unlikely to actually be drafted. However, with an entire season still to play, it is entirely possible that Cherocci can move up on the draft boards and into late round contention.
Even if undrafted, he can follow in the recent footsteps of many of his defensive teammates who have gone on to make an impact in the NFL without being drafted. This surprisingly extensive list includes Frank Zombo, Nick Bellore, Jahleel Addae, and Josh Gordy, who already have a combined two Super Bowl rings amongst them.
In the meantime, Cherocci will look to lead an improved and more experienced defensive unit into the 2014 season, looking to maintain his statistical prowess while doing his part to win a Mid-American Conference title during his last season of college football.