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2019 Central Michigan Chippewas football Key Storylines

Jim McElwain has quite the job ahead of him in Mt. Pleasant, as there’s a lot of expectations placed upon the Chippewas despite their 1-11 finish in 2018.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a renewed sense of optimism for CMU fans, as the program has been extremely aggressive at rebuilding and rebranding the football program this past offseason.

CMU athletic director Michael Alford has made it clear that results matter in the firing of John Bonamego, who was let go after a lackluster 1-11 season in 2018, even despite having signed a contract extension the prior offseason after Coach Bono led the Chips to three consecutive bowl games.

Alford spent his time finding a new coach before keying in on Jim McElwain, the much-maligned former Florida head coach, from Michigan (where he was a wide receivers coach in 2018) in an effort to bring the football program back to prominence. As a former fundraiser at Oklahoma and Alabama, Alford knows that as football goes, so goes the rest of the athletic program.

The move was met with approval from the Chippewa community, and even caught the eye of a lot of national media, with the hiring seen as a coup for a school with the profile of CMU. This places a lot of outsized expectations for a program which, just last season, finished with the worst winning percentage in program history.

Yet, for as much as the hoopla surrounding the program has swirled to heights unseen, the questions with this program are still as familiar as they were going into last season.

The more things change, the more things remain the same.

Who’s going to be the quarterback heading into Week 1 and beyond?

This question has largely surrounded the program since Cooper Rush graduated in 2016, but it rears its head once again in 2019. After signing up a grad transfer in 2017 in Shane Morris, and taking a gamble on the future in Tony Poljan in 2018, the coaching staff at CMU will have to decide who will take the ball going into Week 1, and the choice won’t be terribly easy.

The favorite to be named the Week 1 starter since his arrival on campus has been Quinten Dormady, a rare double graduate transfer from Houston via Tennessee, who is coincidentally currently wearing Rush’s old number 10. The former four-star prospect from Boerne, Texas, who was once considered to be the future of Volunteers football, finds a second chance at redemption after losing out on the starting jobs at both Tennessee and Houston.

Dormady threw for 1,282 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions at Tennessee, primarily sitting behind Josh Dobbs for his first two seasons before nabbing the starting QB job in his junior season. He was injured in his very first game as a starter, and couldn’t fight off the pain, ultimately losing his spot to current Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano. A transfer to Houston didn’t pan out either, as he couldn’t unseat starter D’Eriq King, who could be a potential Heisman Award finalist.

Now, he comes to Central Michigan to play under another former SEC product in Jim McElwain, who gameplanned against Dormady in his days at Florida. Thus far, he’s been with the first-string offense in spring camps, which marks him as the favorite coming into the fall. Dormady has looked capable, impressing onlookers with a strong arm and veteran leadership, two things the coaching staff will surely take into account in their decision.

Dormady will have competition in senior Tommy Lazzaro, who has the most remaining experience of the CMU quarterbacks after both Austin Hergott and Tony Poljan were moved to the tight end position in the offseason. Lazzaro was a spot starter in 2018, as CMU attempted to figure out its QB position after Poljan struggled in the early going.

Lazzaro, as a true dual-threat QB, is a fairly different quarterback than Dormady, who is a more traditional pocket passer. Lazzaro finished with 711 passing yards for five touchdowns and ran for 381 yards and three touchdowns in six games (five starts.) Lazzaro became the first 100-yard rusher from the QB spot since Dan LeFevour in 2009 last season, which is generally a net positive, but it came at the expense of the rest of the offense, as most of Lazzaro’s rushing yards came on broken plays. Lazzaro also suffered from poor decision-making and accuracy issues, as he threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and completed only 48 percent of his passes.

All that said, by the time Lazzaro came in mid-season, the team was in fairly bad shape, missing several key players at the skill positions, as well as having an offensive line which allowed constant backfield pressure, so it was reasonable for him to be a bit panicked. The fact he retains the most familiarity with the personnel at Central will be an advantage for him going into fall camps, but he has a long road to plow if he hopes to supplant Dormady.

Another option for 2019 could include true freshman Daniel Richardson, a Miami, Florida, resident who finished his prep school career as the all-time Dade County leader in passing yards (9,791) and passing touchdowns (116), placing on three-time All-State teams and being named as an All-County QB in all four of his seasons as a starter, including his freshman year (2015,) when he led Booker T. Washington HS to the state title. He received second-and-third team reps in spring camps, which shows how much faith the staff has in him to compete. He’ll likely be a QB3 or redshirt candidate for 2019, but it’s worth mentioning him here as a “break glass in case of emergency” option.

How do you replace an entire defense?

I don’t exaggerate when I say that McElwain and his defensive coordinator Robb Akey will have a monumental task ahead of him in figuring out their defense heading into 2019.

The defense was perhaps the lone bright spot for the Chippewas in 2019, as they retained one of the top defenses in the country, finishing 36th in total defense with 4,264 yards given up and 42 touchdowns, averaging 355.3 yards per game. They also caused 22 turnovers (34th in the country) and had three defensive touchdowns as a unit (17th in the country,) so it’s going to be hard to replace that kind of production.

The defense loses a lot of its key pieces, including both of their starters at the corners in early departers Sean Bunting (2nd round, Buccaneers) and Xavier Crawford (5th round, Texans), all three starting linebackers in Malik Fountain, Trevor Apsey and Alex Briones (graduations,) as well as its most NFL-ready talent in defensive end Mike Danna to transfer. All in all, CMU will have to replace about nine starting or rotational pieces in the defense heading into the new season.

Luckily for CMU, they retain ultra-talented safeties Da’Quaun Jamison (41 total tackles, three tackles-for-loss, an interception and a forced fumble in 2018) and Devonni Reed (97 tackles, three defended passes and a fumble return touchdown in 2018) to anchor an otherwise young CMU defense. Established starter Sean Adesanya also returns at the defensive end spot, and talented redshirt freshman LaQuan Johnson will be a favorite to win a position at defensive tackle alongside returning senior D’Andre Dill.

The true question marks will be at the corners and the linebacker positions, where there’s a lot of talent, but also a limited amount of tape and experience. Most of the returnees, especially at the linebacking spots, have only special teams experience to refer to (outside of Michael Oliver, who got a few starts in 2018,) or were a JUCO product in 2018 like Dishon McNary (of Independence (KS) CC.)

Under Akey, the defense likely won’t see a major change in philosophy, as the prefers a base attacking 4-3 much like the previous regime did. But the players they select at those positions will matter a lot for the team’s success, which is what makes this storyline a fascinating one.

Can new additions from the transfer market contribute immediately?

New transfers recruited under Bonamego and McElwain will emerge into the fold in 2019, giving CMU a much-needed shot of energy as they go into fall camps.

On offense, there’s three names to look out for in Kalil Pimpleton, JaRaymond Hall and Oge Udeogu.

Pimpleton, a transfer from Virginia Tech who sat out all of 2018 due to NCAA rules, looks to be highlighted as a starting outside receiver, especially with the injury to established starter Brandon Childress. Despite being undersized, Pimpleton, at five-foot-nine, 160 lbs., has been a speed option in camps so far, and could be a bit of a matchup problem for opposing corners. A lot of expectation has been heaved upon him so far, and the offense will definitely be using him a lot, as he’s a versatile, multi-positional player.

JaRaymond Hall, a transfer from Michigan who sat out all of 2018 due to NCAA rules, will likely be in the mix to either be a starter or a rotational piece at both tackle spots. As a high three-star recruit, Hall attracted many Power Five suitors, including Arizona, Iowa State, Miami (FL), Ole Miss, Penn State and Tennessee before opting to go to Michigan. Standing at six-foot-five, 285 lbs., Hall still has room to grow as an offensive lineman, and could key in as an important developmental prospect.

The true mystery prospect on offense is Oge Udeogu, a former three-star JUCO product from City of San Francisco CC, who is a graduate transfer from Iowa State. Udeogu hasn’t played a snap of regular-season football since 2015, due to a redshirt season and an accompanying triceps injury which he could never quite shake off. He applied for a medical waiver and got it, transferring to CMU to compete for a spot in the interior. At six-foot-three, 310 lbs., Udeogu certainly has the size to compete for a starting role.

On defense, the prospects to look for are linebacker Andrew Ward and safety Brian Edwards.

Andrew Ward got some run in 2018 as an immediately eligible transfer from Nebraska, collecting nine game appearances and six starts. He mostly saw special teams action, recording one tackle. A former three-star prospect from Muskegon, Michigan, Ward attracted a lot of attention from Big Ten schools, but ultimately moved closer to home to compete for the inside linebacking job this season. He’s spent a full season in Mt. Pleasant and has a lot of potential, but it’s yet to be seen if he’ll be under consideration as a full-time starter.

Brian Edwards, a former Florida Gator under Jim McElwain, transferred into the CMU program on Aug. 3, but it’s unknown at this time if he’ll be immediately eligible or if he’ll have to sit out a year. He currently has two years remaining. If he does gain immediate eligibility, he becomes an important rotational piece at the safety spot to spell out Jamison and Reed and could even get run as a corner if need be. If he isn’t eligible, Edwards is very likely a favorite to start at safety in 2020, with Jamison graduating.

Jim McElwain as program builder

This is perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Chippewas football program as we head into the 2019 season.

McElwain has shown a propensity to turn things around quickly as a head coach. At Colorado State, it only took him two seasons to being the Rams from a bottom-of-the-barrel team to a league contender. He took that lightning in a bottle with him to Florida, leading the Gators to two straight SEC East division titles in his first two seasons.

The third seasons at both schools had very mixed results.

He left Colorado State in 2014 after taking them to a 10-2 regular season record, finishing behind Group of Five powerhouse Boise State in the division for the Florida job. The CSU teams since then have finished with three consecutive 7-6 seasons with rosters primarily filled with McElwain recruits. McElwain started his third season with a few issues, left Florida under less-than-ideal circumstances involving him refusing to cooperate with his bosses, and became the butt of college football Twitter jokes to boot. We’ll never quite know what the 2017 season and the seasons beyond that were supposed to look like, but a lot could be interpreted from the fact Dan Mullens has propelled Florida back into the national conversation after McElwain’s departure.

Central Michigan is perhaps the last chance McElwain will have to prove he belongs in the head coaching business as a program builder, and how he approaches the first two seasons of work in Mt. Pleasant will be telling regarding if the experiment will be a success or not. Will McElwain commit seriously to the building process and not take for granted this chance he’s been given? Or will McElwain get lax, take on his worst tendencies and treat the job as merely paycheck or a stepping stone to the next gig?

No one expects McElwain to be the next Solich; matter of fact, far from it. If history is any indication, his stay probably won’t last too long. But what does matter is the attitude he brings with him to the job. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on him nationally, as he attempts to rehabilitate his image as a football coach, and his actions will be extremely telling on if he learned any lessons from his time at Florida.

I understand this could be read extremely cynically, but it’s a legitimate question to ask as CMU finds itself at a crossroads as a football program. It’s invested heavily in facilities to bring CMU up to its peer institutions, and is actively working on improving the fan experience so that it can be a better member of the community. But that community has largely told CMU the most important part is to win games, and that burden will be on the shoulders of McElwain, who will be looked at as a potential program saviour, fair or not.

If the experiment goes well, it will help curry favor with the fanbase and make the money poured in completely worth it. If it goes south… it could mean an uncertain future with years of rebuilding inside a shiny new stadium.