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2019 Central Michigan Chippewas Football Season Preview

It’s a whole new ballgame for the Chippewas in 2019 in a variety of ways.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Central Michigan at Kentucky Photo by Mat Gdowski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No competitive football team ever wants to finish 1-11. No competitve football team wants their only win of the season to be against the one team they were supposed to beat… and doing so only in a defensive struggle. No competitive football team wants to go down as the worst team in program history by winning percentage.

Yet, that is exactly where the Chippewas found themselves by the end of the 2018 season.

Their head coach Jon Bonamego, an alum who learned under legendary head coach Herb Deromedi and was by all measures a Chippewa, through and through, was unceremoniously let go after a humiliating 51-13 loss to Toledo on Black Friday, amid a cloud of personal animosity.

Adrift in a sea the program has never seen before, Michael Alford, the new athletic director, made a bold move and hired Michigan wide receivers coach — and former Florida Gators head coach — Jim McElwain for a contract well under his potential market value. A hiring move outside of CMU’s usual modus operandi under the previous AD Dave Heeke, it shocked not only those in Mt. Pleasant, but also a lot of the college football nation at large.

Donations to the program came pouring in afterwards, to the point where funding for the CMU Champions Center, a new athletics and academics building, was filled to the brim three years ahead of schedule… AND the funding brought in a new video screen, which is set to debut for the home opener on Aug. 29.

Hell, there’s even new football uniforms to boot. The CMU rebrand is nearly complete; now all that’s needed is a competitive football team.

So the question now is: how do they get there?

Key losses

  • Sean Bunting (now Sean Murphy-Bunting) (NFL Draft, Buccaneers)
  • Xavier Crawford (NFL Draft, Texans)
  • Malik Fountain (graduation)
  • Mike Danna (transfer to Michigan)
  • Mitch Stantizek (graduation)
  • Brandon Childress (injury, likely graduation)
  • Devon Spalding (graduation)
  • Shakir Carr (graduation)
  • Alex Neering (graduation)
  • Tyjuan Swain (graduation)

It’s a fair question to ask how CMU is going to fill out its defensive backfield, especially with two sure-fire starters getting drafted to the NFL and one key rotation piece graduating out of the program.

The importance of Bunting and Crawford to that defense cannot go understated. Their reputation as lockdown corners really helped keep games closer than they should have been for the Chippewas. Crawford alone had a team-leading 12 pass breakups along with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He also accumulated 24 tackles, 18 of them solo stops. Bunting recorded an impressive 37 tackles (24 solo), with two interception and five pass breakups to boot. Those numbers earned both players First Team All-MAC honors despite their team going 1-11.

Departures on the defense don’t stop there, however. The Chippewas will also lose several important players in the front seven, including the linebacker Malik Fountain and two defensive ends (Danna and Stantizek).

Danna, who seemed ready to assume a leadership role after the hiring of McElwain, surprisingly entered the transfer portal and left Mt. Pleasant for Ann Arbor. It’s an impact loss for the Chippewas, as Danna was the engine that made the defensive line go in 2018, compiling 66 total tackles (37 solo), 15 tackles-for-loss for 90 yards, and two fumble recovery touchdowns. Danna finished with Pro Football Focus All-American honors, as well as first-team All-MAC honors for his efforts, and was an attractive target in the transfer market as a result. He developed into a game-changing pass rusher at CMU, and will surely have an impact in his new home.

Mitch Stantizek leaving is a huge emotional loss for the Chippewas defense, as Stantizek has been around the program since he was a key rotation piece as a true freshman in 2014. Although he never made an All-MAC team in his career, Stantizek was always a solid and dependable player as a primary starter. He finished with 38 total tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss for 16 yards, three sacks for 10 yards and a forced fumble in 2018 while lining opposite of Danna.

Malik Fountain was the heart and soul of the Chippewas interior defense in 2018, recording an incredible 155 tackles (88 solo) in 2018, while also recording eight tackles-for-loss for 30 yards, 2.5 sacks for 18 yards and two interceptions from the middle linebacker spot. Fountain led the MAC in total tackles, solo tackles and tackles per game and was second in the nation in solo tackles per game (7.3) and total tackles per game (12.9,) earning all-MAC first team honors as a senior in 2018. In terms of potential replacements for him, there aren’t a lot of proven names, as fellow backers Trevor Apsey (50 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks) and Alex Briones (63 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss) also graduate out of the program.

On offense, they’ll lose three starting offensive lineman in Clayton Walderczak, Alex Neering and Shakir Carr (minicamp invitation with Indianapolis), which means a lot of immediate turnover at the tackle and guard positions. They also lose utility man and emotional team captain Devon Spalding (27 receptions for 231 yards as a receiver after converting from running back his senior season), as well as Brandon Childress (fall conditioning injury) for the 2019 season.

The loss of Childress is especially dispiriting, as he was already recovering from an earlier ACL injury suffered in 2017 and looked to be a highlight option on offense in 2019 after struggling to get back to shape in 2018. Time will tell if he’ll apply for a sixth year of eligibility or graduate after the season, but with two season-ending injuries to his knee, there’s a lot to consider for him.

Key returnees:

  • Jonathan Ward
  • Tony Poljan
  • Steve Eipper
  • Da’Quaun Jamison
  • Devonni Reed
  • Brandon Brown
  • Ryan Tice
  • Sean Adesanya
  • Andrew Ward
  • LaQuan Johnson

Despite the losses (both literal and figurative,) Coach Bono left quite the talented roster behind for McElwain to meld in his image on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

Jonathan Ward returns as the true dual-threat running back after an injury-filled junior season, where he finished with 76 carries for 218 yards and no touchdowns and 8 receptions for 41 yards in nine games. He dealt with a lingering injury suffered after the Kentucky game he could never quite shake, but looked healthy and ready to go during spring scrimmages. The coaching staff is hoping Ward can return to his 2017 form, where he led the team in rushing yards (990) and rushing touchdowns (nine) on 166 attempts, while also finishing third amongst receivers with 41 receptions, fourth in receiving yards with 361 and two touchdowns. He’ll likely have the reins of the rushing offense in his hands when CMU first takes the field against Albany.

Tony Poljan has formally converted from quarterback to tight end after Coach Bono’s gamble of making him the starter lasted all of three games. Chased after by various Power Five programs as a tight end coming out of high school, Bono convinced Poljan to come to CMU as a quarterback, and McElwain will serve to benefit from having a six-foot-seven, 235 lb., match-up nightmare at the TE position. As a receiver in 2018, Poljan caught seven passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns, which is a promising sign despite the limited sample size. He’ll pair nicely with fellow six-foot-seven TE Bernhard Raimann.

Steve Eipper returns to anchor the offensive line at center, as one of two players on the team to be named to a preseason award watch list (Rimington Award). He’s been the primary starter at center over the last two seasons, but also has experience at the other o-line positions.

There will be plenty of key returnees on defense who will look to replace the gaping holes in both the secondary and the linebacking positions.

In the defensive backfield, expect Da’Quaun Jamison, Devonni Reed and Brandon Brown to be the names on everybody’s tongues in terms of being leaders on the team and starters at their positions.

Devonni Reed was especially a revelation at the safety position, winning a starting spot as a redshirt freshman and never looking back. The Belleville HS product was three tackles short of a 100-yard season, recording 97 total tackles (62 solo), three defended passes and a fumble return touchdown. He looks to improve on those numbers in 2019.

Da’Quaun Jamison is Reed’s likely battery mate at the safety spot, as the Leesburg, Georgia, native played in all 12 games (nine starts) and recorded 41 total tackles (29 solo), three tackles-for-loss, an interception and a forced fumble. Jamison, a redshirt senior, has been a front-and-center vocal leader for the Chippewas this offseason, representing CMU at MAC Media Days, and will likely be the leader of a young defense in 2019.

At the corners, Brandon Brown (12 tackles, 10 solo, one interception as a third corner in 2018) and former Alabama HS QB Darius Bracy appear to be the favorites to be the starters on the outside.

Dishon McNary, a JUCO addition from Independence CC (as made famous by the Netflix series “Last Chance U”) was a late addition to the CMU recruiting class and appears to be in position to be a rotational piece for the Chippewas. All three of these players are sophomores heading into 2019, meaning they’ll have to find their footing quickly as all three will be first-year starters with limited reps in the previous season.

The front seven will also get a few fresh faces, though they don’t experience quite as much upheaval as the secondary.

There will be plenty of opportunities to shine under new defensive coordinator Robb Akey’s 4-3 base defense, which is predicated on aggressive reads, especially with all three of CMU’s primary starters at the backing positions gone.

There’s no immediate solution for any of the three spots. Andrew Ward, a Muskegon, Michigan, native and transfer from Nebraska, could get some time at middle linebacker after primarily spending time on special teams in 2018. Michael Oliver (31 total tackles, 20 solo) returns as the player with the most experience at the position, with six starts to his name. Troy Brown (19 tackles, 13 solo, one interception in 10 games) and George Douglas (primarily special teams) could also see some time, but again, there’s nothing particularly set in stone at the position group.

LaQuan Johnson will immediately make a play to start at defensive tackle after an awesome redshirt freshman campaign. Taking advantage of the new redshirt rules, Johnson collected 15 tackles (eight solo tackles) and two sacks in just four games, starting three in 2018. He’ll be an important piece with lots of potential going into the new season.

Ryan Tice, the transfer kicker from Michigan, was nearly automatic for the Chippewas in 2018, converting 10-of-12 field goals (83.3 percent) in 2018 and 14-of-15 on extra-point attempts. Tice went 6-of-7 from the 40+ yard range, including once from a career-long 53 yards against Ball State. The team will likely depend on him once again in 2019, as they will suffer a few growing pains on offense. Tice should be up to the task, as he is a preseason award watch lister for the Lou Groza Award for best placekicker.

What’s New

  • Quinten Dormady
  • Kalil Pimpleton
  • JaRaymond Hall
  • Oge Udeogu
  • The coaching staff

As I said before, there is a lot of new surrounding the Chippewas. We’d be remiss not to go through a lot of the exact changes and how they could impact the CMU football program down the line.

Perhaps the most high-profile acquisition for Central is former Tennessee QB Quinten Dormady. Dormady was a four-star prospect out of Boerne, Texas, who had his choice of Power Five schools to choose from before ultimately choosing Tennessee to play under former CMU coach Butch Jones. In Dormady, the Volunteers saw a prospect with impressive pocket presence and a strong arm who has experience leading a spread offense. Upon his signing on, Dormady was hailed as a potential program saviour for the Volunteers, who was expected to immediately come in and push for playing time.

That just wasn’t in the cards for Dormady.

He ended up being Josh Dobbs’ primary backup during his first two years, and then had to battle with Jarrett Guarantano for the starting spot in 2017. He won the job, but lasted only five games, dealing with a shoulder injury suffered in the first game of the season. He lost the job and eventually transferred to Houston to push D’Eriq King for the QB1 job. He would see one game of action as a redshirt graduate before ultimately transferring to CMU.

As Tennessee’s starting quarterback, he threw for 1,282 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions with a 57 percent completion percentage. The Chippewa coaching staff seems to like him a lot as a leader, having voted him as the only non-returnee “captain” for a recent community outreach event and playing him with the first-stringers at spring camps.

Joining Dormady as a new offensive weapon is Kalil Pimpleton, a diminutive, but talented wide transfer at wide receiver from Virginia Tech. Pimpleton was brought in by the former staff, redshirting in 2018. The Muskegon, Michigan native is a speedster on the outside, wowing attendees of the spring scrimmage with his ability to blow the top off of defenses.

Pimpleton was a three-star prospect coming out of high school, but schools were hesitant to offer him due to his small size (five-foot-nine, 160 lbs.) Virginia Tech took him on, but Pimpleton saw only five games of action and touched the ball once before transferring out. He’ll have a chip on his shoulder as he looks to prove he can be a contributor at the FBS level. McElwain and staff will give him his opportunity, as he ran with the first-teamers at spring scrimmages.

On the offensive line, two separate transfer linemen will look to win positions on the offensive line in JaRaymond Hall, a redshirt freshman transfer from Michigan brought in by Bonamego, and Oge Udeogu, a graduate transfer from Iowa State brought in by McElwain. Hall projects to start at one of the tackle spots (likely as a Walderczak replacement), while Udeogu will likely start in the interior at one of the guard spots.

Finally, there’s the new coaching staff. Jim McElwain was a busy man this offseason, replacing all but one position coach (Tavita Thompson, TE coach/recruiting coordinator) on his staff. The energy has been noticeably different as a result, and it seems that so far, the team has taken to their new instructors.

Mike Cummings returns to Mt. Pleasant for a fifth (!!!) time as an assistant coach, this time taking over the offensive line and helping coordinate the offense. The last time he was at CMU was from 2010-2013, as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under Dan Enos. Cummings’ offensive line graduated Eric Fisher, who was drafted first overall at the 2013 NFL Draft. His offense ranked in the top 25 passing units in two of his four years at his previous CMU stay, while the passing offense was eighth in the FCS at his stay with VMI last season.

Cummings will help first-time offensive coordinator Charlie Frye get comfortable. Frye, the former Akron gunslinger, will once again serve on a McElwain staff, as he was previously a consultant and director of player development at Florida from 2015-17. Frye’s last collegiate stop was at Division III Ashland University, where he coached wide receivers. He’s promised a “personnel-driven offense” which will look multiple and seeks to play to the strengths of their best players. This will be the first time Fyre has been an offensive coordinator since he was in high school from 2012-15.

On defense, McElwain brought in former Idaho head coach Robb Akey, who was on his Florida staff as a defensive line coach, to be the new defensive coordinator. Akey has a bevy of experience between the FCS, FBS and professional levels, coaching at defensive line for Minnesota and Washington in the NFL for three seasons before joining Florida in 2017. As a coordinator, Akey will likely run out of an aggressive 4-3 base defense, telling Central Michigan Life in an interview that “[t]here ain’t nothing that will happen if you sit back.” His 30-plus years of experience will surely be a boon for a young defense in desperate need of coaching after several graduations and early exits leaves the defense void of senior leadership.

If we examine McElwain’s tendencies from his coaching job at Florida, it’s likely that the offense will look to come out of more pro or spread looks, as that is what McElwain ran at Colorado State and Alabama, respectively. McElwain also prefers 4-3 defenses, as reflected in the hiring of Akey. It’ll be interesting to see if these sorts of philosophies will work in the MAC, a progressive league which is a bit more wide open in terms of play-calling than the SEC, where talent tends to win over, no matter what the system.

The Schedule

Date Opponent Previous or last available result
Thur., Aug. 29 vs. UAlbany First meeting
Sat., Sept. 7 at Wisconsin First meeting
Sat., Sept. 14 vs. Akron* Oct. 27, 2018 (L, 17-10)
Sat., Sept. 21 at Miami (FL) First meeting
Sat., Sept. 28 at Western Michigan* Oct. 20, 2018 (L 35-10)
Sat., Oct. 5 vs. Eastern Michigan* Nov. 3, 2018 (L 17-7)
Sat., Oct. 12 vs. New Mexico State [HC]
Sat., Oct. 19 at BGSU* Nov. 10, 2018 (L 24-13)
Sat., Oct. 26 at Buffalo* Oct. 6, 2018 (L 34-24)
Sat., Nov. 2 vs. NIU Sept. 15, 2018 (L 24-16)
Sat., Nov. 16 at Ball State Oct. 13, 2018 (L 24-23)
Fri., Nov. 29 vs. Toledo Nov. 23, 2018 (L 53-13)

Per Phil Steele, the 2019 CMU schedule ranks as the 122nd-toughest in the country, as the teams they’re set to play have a combined record of 71-81 (46 percent) in 2018. That’s pretty good for CMU, which could use a relatively lax schedule to try and get themselves back into shape. They will be playing 11 games in a row to start the season for the second-straight season, and also face a third-week conference game for the second year in a row as well, this time playing Akron at home.

Money games against Miami (FL) and Wisconsin will net the program $2.4M combined, and will likely net heavy losses. That’s fine, as far as this program is concerned. The key games will be @ WMU and vs. EMU, as the Chippewas could be in danger of a slow start due to the way the schedule is set up in the early part of the season.

If they can get to at least 2-3 after Week 5, the Chips have a good chance at a salvageable five-win season with games vs. New Mexico State, at BGSU and at Ball State coming off of a BYE week. If they win all three, the traditional Black Friday game against Toledo suddenly takes much more precedence.

2019 Outlook

It’s a time of transition in Mt. Pleasant.

Summer is transitioning over into fall, students are transitioning from enjoying the last of their vacation to the inevitable gear-up towards schooling. The program itself is transitioning in positive ways, even if it means temporary inconveniences.

For one, the former locker rooms on the north end of the stadium have been demolished to make way for the eventual Champions Center, meaning the players currently have to use temporary ones. The old video board on that end of the stadium was (thankfully) sunsetted, making way for a giant 32’ x 100’ video screen behind the south endzone. The Chippewas will have a new uniform set heading into 2019, which, in part, recalls the last time CMU won a bowl game.

So too will the team transition.

The offseason has been all about establishing a “clean slate,” moving on from the woes of 2018 and looking ahead to the potential which sits in the 2019 schedule. Progress will be the name of the game for the program this season, as expectations are fairly realistic given the nature of the roster.

Fans are hoping that the turnaround will be quick under McElwain, as he has had the reputation of working magic at his previous head coaching stops in turning around problem rosters quickly. But as with all rebuilding programs, it will require a good bit of patience as the new staff tries to work out all the kinks.

There’s certainly a lot of reason to be optimistic heading into the season if you’re a CMU fan, between the talent leftover from the Bonamego era and the pedigree of the new coaching staff. That said, there’s a lot of expectations that have been a bit quick to develop. If the team does struggle out of the gate, there will be many questions asked about whether or not this marriage will work out for the best. For now, all CMU fans can do is hope.