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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Football Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

The Chips are leaping into the unknown this season. What should we expect from the Maroon and Gold?

NCAA Football: Miami Beach Bowl-Central Michigan vs Tulsa Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s year three of the John Bonamego era, and optimism is in the air despite a 2016 season that ended on a somewhat sour note.

The Chippewas had a 2-4 streak after a strong 4-2 start in a tough MAC West division, finishing the season at 6-7 (3-5 MAC) after a tough Miami Beach Bowl loss to Tulsa. During the regular season, CMU collected key non-con wins over UNLV and Oklahoma State and key conference victories against NIU and Ohio late in the season.

Any hopes to win the West were vanquished with a freak three-game skid, which included losses to Toledo, Kent State and Miami after a 2-1 start to the conference season.

This season will see a lot of change at the key offensive skill positions, including quarterback, running back and receiver, as well as coaching schematics, with former Northern Michigan HC Chris Ostrowsky replacing Maurice Watts as offensive coordinator.

There’s a lot of young talent on the CMU roster, and now that Coach Bono largely has a team built in his own image, it will be a fascinating watermark season to watch for fans of the Maroon and Gold.

Five Players to Watch For

Shane Morris, QB

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Morris was set to become the left-handed saviour of Michigan football when he signed on as a high four-star prospect out of Warren De La Salle in 2011. Unfortunately, Morris’ career at Michigan just never got off the ground. Morris had no career touchdowns as a Wolverine, collecting 434 yards and five interceptions in 12 game appearances.

Morris is perhaps most famously known for being the quarterback that Brady Hoke sent back into a game against Minnesota despite sustaining a clear concussion in a game where Michigan trailed by 20+ points. Morris was also caught in the transition between Hoke and Jim Harbaugh, getting caught behind Wilton Speight and Jake Rudock.

Morris, along with the CMU coaching staff, hope reuniting him with his old high school coach and a playing system that favors his strengths will bring out the talents that made Morris a highly-heralded recruit out of high school. The last Hoke-recruited Michigan transfer that donned the Maroon and Gold, Thomas Rawls, certainly had himself a career.

Morris will have to beat out promising redshirt freshman Tony Poljan, who received offers from many Big Ten schools and was himself a highly-regarded 3/4-star recruit out of Lansing Catholic, for the job. The battle could be a signal for CMU’s progress as a program.

Corey Willis, WR

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Willis emerged as the primary receiving option for the offense after the career-ending injury Jesse Kroll sustained at Virginia and his impact cannot be denied.

Willis’ skills as a receiver should make most opposing defenses quiver in their spikes. Willis was the best in the Mid-American Conference at forcing missed tackles as a receiver by a country mile, with 24 forced misses recorded in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus. Willis’ big play ability (15.2 yards per catch average in 2016) is a make-or-break aspect of the Chippewa offense. CMU was 5-2 in games where he caught at least one touchdown last season and just 1-5 when he did not.

Willis finished as the leading receiver in receptions (72,) yards (1,091,) and touchdown (9) in 2016 and look to get more reps with the departure of Kroll and injury to secondary big-play target Tyler Conklin.

Devon Spalding, HB

NCAA Football: Miami Beach Bowl-Central Michigan vs Tulsa Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

CMU holds 11 running backs on the roster and for good reason: there was a focus placed on the position after years of struggling as one of the worst running offenses in the country.

Spalding returns as the most experienced back and the most likely RB1 heading into 2017, and if past performances are any indication, Spalding has the potential to finally break out in his swan song season.

Spalding excels as a receiving back, nabbing 31 receptions for 204 yards and a touchdown to go along with his 758 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns in 2016. Spalding has a great burst when he’s on the field, averaging 5.5 yards per rush, good for sixth in the MAC. Spalding has an explosiveness that can make him a dangerous option out of the backfield, especially with his balanced sense of play.

But that’s when he’s on the field. Spalding has dealt with injuries throughout hicareer, never completing a 12-or-13 game season in his time at CMU, playing in 11 games last season and just five in 2015. In the past, CMU struggled with Spalding’s absence, but a litany of rushing options, including Jonathan Ward, Romello Ross and Minnesota transfer Berkley Edwards will look to platoon the position and give Spalding an opportunity to rest.

Amari Coleman, DB

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Amari Coleman has shown no fear in hi three year at CMU, having made appearances in most every game since his arrival to Mt. Pleasant as a true freshman.

Starting primarily as a kick and punt returner in 2014, Coleman transitioned to defensive back with ease in 2015, earning Defensive Newcomer of the Year after a campaign that saw him make 43 tackles, one sack and an interception. 2016 would see Coleman break out into a legitimate defensive force.

Coleman led the MAC with 15 pass breakups and four interceptions (including two interception returns for touchdowns,) earning MAC West Defensive Player of the Week twice and being named to the first-team All-MAC defense. Coleman also reeled in 48 total tackles to go along with those league-leading numbers.

This offseason, Coleman has started to receive national attention, being named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List in July. He and fellow running mate Josh Cox will certainly have to step up in 2017, as the defensive backfield lost its leader in Tony Annese and will be breaking in young options at the safety positions.

Joe Ostman, DE

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Central Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Yooper Power is a weird and wonderful thing, and CMU certainly has a great dose of it in St. Ignace’s own Joe Ostman.

Ostman has been a gem of a find from his very first action in 2013, when he was the only true freshman to receive any playing time in his recruiting class. He’s been a steady and reliable rotation on the defensive line as a pass rusher with a high motor that has blossomed into a dynamo when given starting reps.

2016 proved as much, as Ostman collected 69 total tackles (good for third on the team) and lead the team in sacks (9,) tackles for loss (13.5,) and forced fumbles (2) to help shore up the Chippewas defense. Ostman was named to the second-team All-MAC defense for his efforts.

He’ll be the go-to player on the defensive line for the 2017 season, as the rest of the line will be rotating in young and as-of-yet unproven prospects at the other three spots in the 4-3 formation.

Four Games to Watch For

Sept. 9 at Kansas

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

The Chippewas will get a chance to collect their second Big 12 victory in two years when they take on the Kansas Jayhawks at scenic Memorial Stadium.

CMU is 0-2 against Kansas in its history, but alas, this is a very different CMU team and a very different Kansas team going into Sept. 9. Just last season, Kansas was lambasted by the Ohio Bobcats at home in the non-conference season, which gives CMU hope to take revenge for a 24-10 loss in 2014.

Kansas football is essentially a G5 team in a P5 conference, so this is CMU’s most likely chance to get a marquee non-conference win going into a tough conference season.

Sept. 16 at Syracuse:

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The third and final game in a home-and-home series, this game against Syracuse has all the makings of a grudge match.

The last game in 2015 was a back-and-forth OT affair that included a game-tying Cooper Rush TD with just seven seconds left in regulation and a bone-crunching hit on QB Eric Dungey that resulted in a CMU player receiving death threats post-game. Even the first game had a lot of drama attached; just hours before the game, Thomas Rawls was suspended in relation to a case involving three felony theft charges from prior to his joining the CMU roster and star receiver Titus Davis was ruled out with a knee injury. The resulting game saw CMU lose 40-3 at home with Saylor Lavallii handling the load at RB.

It will be an interesting game to watch, if only to see how the players remaining from the 2015 game handle being across from one another once again.

Sept. 23 vs. Miami:

NCAA Football: St. Petersburg Bowl-Miami (Ohio) at Mississippi State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The RedHawks have been a thorn in the Chippewas’ side for awhile and last season, it stung particularly hard.

The RedHawks blitzed CMU 37-17 in front of a national television audience on their way to attaining bowl eligibility and a six-game winning streak. The win pulled the all-time series even at 13-13-1 and really killed any chance of CMU winning the West. It was a brutal loss for the Chips and they’ll be looking for revenge at home.

Miami is a dark horse candidate to win the East, so this game early in the conference slate should be a good indication of whether or not the Chips are primed to make a division run.

Nov. 1 at WMU:

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I really shouldn’t have to explain why this is a must-watch.

WMU was the top team in the MAC last year and embarrassed CMU at home not only in front of a sold-out crowd at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, but also national TV cameras. The shellacking CMU faced was enough for WMU to finally get ranked, which was something they would not relinquish for the rest of the year.

This year will be a little different, as a lot of key cogs are missing for the WMU offense and a new head coach will be taking the reins. The game also moves back to its traditional early November date, as opposed to last year’s early October meeting.

CMU, if their season doesn’t go to plan, can at least attempt to play spoiler in this rivalry matchup.

Three Keys to Success

No matter who the quarterback is, line play will be key.

CMU will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in four years and communication will be essential, not only with the new quarterback but also between one another.

Line play was a bit of a struggle in 2016, as Rush had to flee the pocket often to complete throws down the field. Usually, if a quarterback is mobile or can make plays otherwise, a little slack can be given. Alas, The offense will also be shifting to a more aggressive spread, meaning the line will have to get on blocks quicker to allow plays to develop downfield.

The offensive line consisting of Austin Doan, Derek Edwards, J.P. Quinn, Shakir Carr and Joe Austin returns intact and will have several rotation options, including Logan Slaughter and Steve Eipper. The senior-laden group should have the reps under them to be able to get the job done.

The defense must step up to the plate.

The defense was fairly decent last season, finishing 54th in total defense of 128 member institutions. But a closer delve indicates a tendency to give up inopportune plays. The Chips gave up 51 opponent touchdowns last season and allowed an average of 391.9 yards of offense per game. (That’s 5.7 yards per play, average.) Those aren’t great numbers if your offense is struggling.

The defense, as mentioned earlier, will be a big question mark, especially with the loss of senior leadership both on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield, where fresh faces are currently competing for starting roles. Coleman and running mate Josh Cox will be Central’s best defensive options going into the season from a coverage standpoint, while the line and linebackers will try to meld in the second year of Greg Colby’s aggressive 4-3 system.

The offense will be a work in progress throughout the season, so it will be up to the defense to once again try and pick up the slack.

Kicking game must absolutely be better than last season.

There’s just no other way to describe it; last year’s placekicking game was atrocious.

Brian Eavey played through a severe groin injury and (understandably in hindsight) struggled to be much of a positive factor, converting only eight of 17 field goal attempts (a paltry 46.7 percent) on the season. It’s a surprise that then-true freshman Kaden Keon was not called on for placekicking duties, especially since he handled kickoff duties at certain spots in the season.

This year, Keon will battle SMU transfer Michael Armstrong for the placekicking position, and all one can ask from the spot is consistency. Eavey was markedly worse as his career progressed, which isn’t helpful when you team needs every point it can get. CMU’s fate last season could have changed if a few kicks went a certain way.

Two Storylines to Emerge

Morris vs. Poljan: what is the direction of the team moving forward?

Easily the biggest storyline to watch for is what happens with the QB1 spot. Quarterback is the most important position on the field for a variety of reasons and whoever is under the helm will have the hopes and expectations of the program on their shoulders.

That’s why this particular battle is intriguing. A promising youngster in Tony Poljan recruited by Coach Bono against a former star recruit looking for a second chance in Shane Morris. Traditionally, CMU has found success in four-year starters, including Dan LeFevour and Cooper Rush. But Morris’ reputation and tutelage under quarterback whisperer Jim Harbaugh could give the coaching staff pause.

Choosing Morris could signal to fans that Coach Bono and his staff feel the pressure to win now, which could be potentially disheartening to any rebuilding efforts. Choosing Poljan would be a commitment to building a program to compete with the top of the MAC table, but could also lose momentum for a program looking to make waves.

What happens if you put in one quarterback and the other struggles as well? Or if they excel? How does the team react? These are questions CMU fans have not had to ask in awhile.

It’s a tough decision, but it’s one that could make or break CMU’s season. At least they know they have good options.

How does the team do without stud TE Tyler Conklin?

Fans were shocked to discover earlier this week that Tyler Conklin, considered CMU’s second-best returning receiver, had surgery on his foot and that the timetable was unclear for his return.

This is a major loss for CMU, as Conklin was a major red-zone target and helped CMU win multiple games, including the Oklahoma State and Ohio matchups. His big play tendency and athleticism stretches defenses and creates mismatches. Without Conklin, CMU could suffer for a little bit.

Conklin had garnered some national attention thanks to last year’s efforts and his loss could have an adverse effect in the locker room, especially if he’s gone for six or seven weeks. If they can come out of the non-conference season at 2-3 or better and he returns healthy, CMU could be in a good position to make a bowl run. Otherwise, the season could fall apart.

Look for six-foot-three, 235 lb. Saginaw Valley State transfer Logan Hessbrook to potentially make a play for the starting TE role in Conklin’s absence. Jonathan Carson and Zach Crouch are some other potential options.

A Bold Prediction

There are a lot of unanswered questions for CMU going into the season, especially at key skill positions on both sides of the ball. That being said, CMU finally has some depth and athleticism that hasn’t been seen in Mt. Pleasant in quite a while.

The switch to the spread should also serve to be a benefit to the personnel currently assembled at CMU. The segment title here is “A Bold Prediction,” and in the spirit of that proclamation, let it be known that CMU could make a dark horse MAC West title run.

If CMU can get through a tough three-game conference stretch with a 2-1 or 3-0 record and win one of WMU or Toledo, they’ll be in decent position to compete with a schedule of Ball State, EMU, Kent State and NIU as the remaining games.

In reality, this team is one that will be competing for bowl eligibility, and a record between 5-7 and 7-6 is entirely possible for this Chippewa squad.