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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

2019 ended in a surprise MAC West title for the Chips, who went 1-11 in the previous campaign. Now, they must defend the division in an unusual season.

Central Michigan v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Under first-year head coach Jim McElwain, who came over from Michigan to try and revive a stalling coaching career two years fresh from an SEC title game appearance, and trying to shed a program-worst 1-11 season in 2018, the Central Michigan Chippewas were under a bit of pressure to perform.

They outperformed every reasonable expectation, finishing the year as a MAC West division champion for the first time since 2009, and turned in an 8-6 overall record, a league-best seven-win turnaround. Despite losses in the MAC title game and the New Mexico Bowl, CMU showed a lot of moxie, quickly becoming one of college football’s best offenses, averaging 30.43 points per game, a season removed from being amongst the bottomfeeders in the NCAA.

When all was said and done, CMU placed eight players (for nine spots) on the end-of-season all-MAC teams, with four of those players placed on the first-team roster, and Jim McElwain walked away with Coach of the Year honors for completing the last-to-first flip in 2019.

It’s a season which will be remembered by Chippewa fans for some time, but alas, that’s all in the past. The 2020 season will present several new challenges for a CMU team which suddenly finds itself with a target on its back, including a six-game, conference-only schedule.

CMU cannot afford to get complacent, even despite the circumstances. How will they attack the 2020 season?


Coaching Staff

The coaching staff remains the same, save for one changeover, at the coordinator positions for the upcoming season, which will certainly help in maintaining a steady temperment.

McElwain, in his second season, will look to build upon an impressive 8-6 season in his first year at the helm, with a fresh Coach of the Year trophy in hand. It’s been a hard row to plow for McElwain to get to this position; it certainly isn’t where the former national champion and Florida head coach expected to be at this point in his career even three years ago.

Brought in as a sort of mercenary by former athletic director Michael Alford (now at Florida State) to turn around the program and get the community re-invested in winning football, McElwain fit the bill and more, instilling a sense of culture for a program which had admittedly gotten a bit lax towards the tail end of the Jon Bonamego era.

The changes— and payoff— were immediate, as CMU played with decidedly more tempo and urgency from the get-go, with the staff identifying playmakers on both sides of the ball and putting them in the best positions for success, with perhaps the best examples being the conversion backup safety Troy Brown to linebacker and former starting QB Tony Poljan to tight end.

Offensive coordinator Charlie Frye and defensive coordinator Robb Akey both return for their second seasons to lead a resurgent Chippewa roster, while only special teams coordinator Ryan Beard (now defensive coordinator at Missouri State) left Mt. Pleasant to seek other opportunities.

Frye was a pleasant surprise after coming in to 2019 with no coordinator experience at the collegiate level, helping to engineer the turnaround on the offensive side of the ball, turning CMU from a team struggling to reach 15 points per game in 2019 to a unit which was amongst the top in the MAC, at an average of 30.43 points. He was able to do so with help from McElwain and veteran offensive line coach Mike Cummings, a former offensive coordinator himself, and transitioned the offense from a RPO-dependent collegiate spread look to a more conventional pro-style with collegiate read concepts.

Frye also keyed in on the chemistry between Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan—former teammates at Michigan high school football powerhouse Muskegon— and made them integral parts of the offense, with the duo both earning first-team all-MAC honors by season’s end. Pimpleton, a former transfer from Virginia Tech, and Sullivan, a rotational option who struggled for touches in 2018 behind converted halfback Devon Spalding and Julian Hicks (now at Akron), proved to be the difference in many of CMU’s matchups. The offense was even able to incorporate a package of plays for wildcat QB Tommy Lazzaro, a former 2018 starter, as a change-of-pace look which perplexed opposing defenses at the tail end of the 2019 campaign.

Akey, a professional and college football veteran, inherited a defense which was already one of the most respected in the MAC, and maintained that performance in 2019, despite losing three pro-caliber players in the offseason. The biggest difference for the defense was on “clutch” downs, with CMU allowing only 33 percent of third-down conversions and 37 percent of fourth-down conversions, down from 39 percent and 43 percent, respectively. Opposing time of possession was also noticeably down from 2018 to 2019, with Akey’s defense only allowing an average of 29 minutes per game last season, down from an incredible 33:16 in 2018.

If there’s a question to answer staffwise, it’s what happens with special teams. Ryan Beard leaves after one season, leaving Keith Murphy, another McElwain protege from Florida, as a special teams coordinator for the first time since 2015 with Southern Illinois.

CMU was consistently out-performed on kickoff and punt returns throughout 2019, giving up 23 yards per kickoff and 9 yards per punt. This reared its head the most in the MAC Championship Game, when Maurice Thomas returned the opening kickoff 98 yards to set up Miami’s first touchdown. Murphy will need to remedy this immediately during the offseason, while also finding ways to gain more yards on returns, as CMU managed only 22 yards on kickoffs and 7 yards on punts in 2019.


Offense

The 2019 CMU offense experienced a renaissance under McElwain and company, doubling their points per game average (15 to 30.43), tripling their first down conversion mark (from 181 to 312) and exploding for over 6,000 combined offensive yards over their 2018 counterparts (who mustered only 3,056 yards.)

Part of that success could be found in returning a healthy roster. After a year riddled with injuries and inefficiency saw five players (including DB Darius Bracy) take snaps at QB and all-MAC performer Jonathan Ward get injured early, 2019 saw a steady hand in the way of roster construction.

Most of the offensive success, however, can be directly traced to a wholesale change of scheme implemented in the offseason. McElwian and Frye installed a pro-style multiple look, which immediately meshed better with the personnel on the roster than the collegiate spread RPO implemented by Bonamego and Ostrowsky.

The staff placed major emphasis on winning via the run game, and tabbed Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis as their major lynchpins. This proved a wise decision, as Ward (183 carries, 1,108 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Lewis (182 carries, 1,074 yards, 12 touchdowns) proved to be up to the task. The two combined to be CMU’s first duo to gain over 1,000 yards in a season, while also running for 100 yards apiece in at least three games last season.

CMU’s average rush attempt in 2019 was 4.8 yards, a significant improvement over 2018’s 3.6, en route to doubling the previous year’s rushing yards total on just over 80 more carries. The biggest change, however? 36 rushing touchdowns, exponentially better than the eight touchdowns CMU scored all of 2018, showing an emphasis on finishing drives.

The rushing attack will look somewhat different in 2020, with the graduation of Ward, but Lewis still projects to have a major impact as the starting running back. There are a number of backs in the stable which could step up for carries, including redshit freshmen Lew Nichols III (19 carries, 84 yards in 2019) and true freshmen Zahir Swann and Christian Brown, who could play and retain eligibility thanks to the NCAA’s recent ruling to grant an additional year for every fall athlete due to COVID-19.

The passing game saw a much-needed stability at the quarterback position, with Tennessee-via-Houston graduate transfer Quinten Dormady (190-of-294, 2,312 yards, 14 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and JUCO transfer via Memphis David Moore (94-of-164, 1,143 yards, five touchdowns, four interceptions) sharing responsibility in leading the Chippewas aerial attack.

Moore is considered the favorite to win the QB1 position, but is still awaiting the results of an appeal regarding a six-game suspension for using a banned substance. Daniel Richardson, a redshirt freshman from Miami, Florida, was the third-string quarterback in 2019, and will liekly compete with Sam Houston State transfer Ty Brock (178-of-312, 2,417 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine games in 2019) for playing time. Other options include Cincinnatti transfer John Keller, Saint Francis (PA) transfer Tyler Shearer and true freshman Tyler Pape.

Perhaps the biggest year-to-year improvement on offense came from a new-look receiving corps in Virginia Tech transfer Kalil Pimpleton, JaCorey Sullivan and converted TE Tony Poljan. The Chippewa passing game averaged 252 yards per game and hauled in 19 touchdowns in 2019, with Pimpleton (82 receptions, 894 yards, six touchdowns) acting as a jack-of-all-trades, Sullivan (57 receptions, 808 yards, three touchdowns) as the deep threat and Poljan (33 recptions, 496 yards, four touchdowns) being a match-up exploit.

The good news there is Pimpleton and Sullivan (both first-team all-MAC selections) return to the lineup to help whoever takes the reins at QB. Speedster receiver Tyrone Scott (37 receptions, 650 yards, five touchdowns) will also return after a stellar 2019 campaign. The situation behind that gets a bit shaky, with lots of role players or inexperienced youth, but Drayton Law, Javon Gantt and Dallas Dixon (transfer from Northern Michigan) could see some playing time.

The departure of Tony Poljan (transfer to Virginia) deeply hurts the tight end room, especially when combined with TE prospects Keegan Cosseau and Bernhard Raimann converting to offensive linemen prior to the shutdown. Currently, Joel Wilson is the projected replacement for Poljan, but behind him is a mish-mash of parts, with former QB Austin Hergott, Dayton transfer Michael Hegelwald, and converted fullbacks Oakley Lavallii and Hunter Buczkowski all behind Wilson.

The offensive line returns two of its five starters from 2019, with senior center Jamezz Kimborough and senior guard Derek Smith retaining their positions. Rotational linemen Deiyantai Powell-Woods and Danny Motowski, who both saw playing time as freshmen in 2019, currently slot in to the starting lineup as well, with converted TE Berhnard Raimann making the move to tackle and seeking starting reps. This was a group who mauled at the point of attack in 2019, helping the offense average about 433.6 yards per game, but also allowed 30 sacks in 14 games, so the steadiness along the trenches, coached by respected OL coach MIke Cummings, will go a long way in determining the direction of the offense.


Defense

The defense saw a slight regression from 2019 to 2020, but that will usually happen when you’re trying to implement a new scheme while having to replace three professional-caliber players all at once with inexperienced talent.

Defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting and Xavier Crawford pursued paid opportunities rather than return for their final year of eligibility, while defenisve end Mike Danna transferred to Michigan to better his professional prospects. All three players are currently on NFL rosters, so they certainly made good gambles there.

That meant the defense got their feet put to the fire in their first handful of games, facing a dynamic FCS offense in Albany and the perpetually excellent Wisconsin back-to-back. Their situation eventually leveled itself out after three very uneven performances to start the season, with a game vs. Miami (FL) perhaps being their best ouput of the season, even in a loss.

Overall, CMU rallied to finish 72nd in total team defense, avergaging about 28.3 points per game and 363 yards per game, down from 2018’s 70th-ranked efforts (27.3 points and 355 yards per game.) The 2020 defense should return most of its key contributors in the front seven, but will be reliant on transfers in the defnesive backfield as they seek to improve upon those numbers.

Along the defensive line, redshirt sophomore LaQuan Johnson (33 tackles, 13.3 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, one forced fumble) and senior Robi Stuart (32 total tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks) both return to their starting roles, with Texas A&M transfer senior Mohammed Diallo (seven tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss in six games after a mid-season clearance) also slated to be part of that starting line. Amir Siddiq (10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss) and Max Saylor (four tackles, one tackle-for-loss) are also in the fold for playing time, while Michigan transfer Deron Irving-Bey and starting nose tackle Jacquez Bristol (23 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks) opted out due to COVID-19.

The linebacker corps loses a key piece in Michael Oliver due to graduation, but does return leading tackler Troy Brown (91 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions) and starting LB/DE Troy Hairston (28 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss, two sacks), as well as rotation backers in Chuck Jones (43 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss) and George Douglas (19 tackles, three takcles-for-loss, two sacks.) These will be battles to watch, as they all play key roles in making CMU’s defense multiple, with some excelling in pass coverage (such as Brown,) while Hairston is more of a run supporter. Other names to look for in terms of depth are converted running back Kumehnnu Gwilly, redshirt freshman Corey Gildersleeve Jr. and Bethune-Cookman transfer Carlton Cleophat (eight tackles in 2019,) who had previously transferred from CMU when McElwain’s staff took over due to family health issues.

The position group which faces the most pressure in 2020 will be the defensive backs, who finished 86th in the country in passing defense with 236.4 yards per game and 22 touchdowns allowed through the air in 2019.

It’s a room which find itself in a tricky spot after a flurry of off-season roster movement.

Freshman phenom Kyron McKinnie-Harper was arrested for computer theft and kicked off the roster, while Norman Anderson was converted to receiver after struggling as an early starter in 2019 and pass break-up artist Montrae Braswell transferred to Missouri State.

CMU also brought in a transfer defensive back from Iowa State in Richard Bowens III, and are expecting immediate contributions from Florida transfer Brian Edwards in to the fold after sitting out all of 2019 due to NCAA restirctions.

At the corners, 2019 starter Brandon Brown (14 tackles, seven pass break-ups), and spot starter Darius Bracy (24 tackles, three pass break-ups) return to fight for their spots, with Edwards and Bowens III expected to slot in in some capacity. Dishon McNary, a JUCO transfer from Independence CC, saw game action in the bowl game in 2019, and could also fight for a rotation spot, alongside Demarcus Governor and the highly-regarded true freshman Daedae Hill.

The safety situation is decidedly more secure, with Devonni Reed (74 tackles, two tackles-for-loss,) Willie Reid (35 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss,) Alonzo McCoy (31 tackles, three interceptions) and Gage Kreski (37 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble) all returning to the lineup in 2020.


Special Teams

Special teams will complete a top-down overhaul this offseason, as the previous coordinator, kicker and punter all left after the 2019 season.

Ryan Tice, a transfer from Michigan via Tennessee, had a shaky 2019 season after coming in as a preseason Lou Groza Award watchlister. In 2018, Tice went 10-of-12, converting 6-of-7 from 40-49 yards. 2019 saw a bit of a dip, including uncharacteristic struggles from short ranges, finishing 13-of-21 on the season, with a long of 55 yards. His replacement on the roster isn’t apparent, with redshirt freshman Aiden Jennings and true freshman Marshall Meeder likely fighting for the honors.

Punter Brady Buell hit the transfer portal in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 shutdown after an admirable first season as a starter, leaving a vacancy at CMU for the starting job. Buell averaged 41.9 yards per punt on 55 attempts in 2019, with a long punt of 59 yards. Redshirt freshman Luke Elzinga is the likely favorite to win the job in Buell’s absence, coming in as a highly-regarded punter out of Grand Rapids [MI] Christian, winning all-state honors in 2017 and 2018. Aiden Jennings could also push for a role as a punter, being listed at both specialist positions.

Kalil Pimpleton will likely return to his duties as the returner for both punts and kicks. The return teams were adequate in 2019, averaging about 23 yards on kickoffs and 7 yards on punts.


Schedule and Outlook

Date Opponent TV/streaming
Wed., Nov. 4 vs. Ohio ESPN
Wed., Nov. 11 at NIU ESPNU
Wed., Nov. 18 vs. WMU 12-day selection
Fri., Nov. 27 at EMU CBS Sports Network
Sat., Dec. 5 vs. Ball State 12-day selection
Sat., Dec. 12 at Toledo 12-day selection

The schedule is shorter than usual, and it’s for a good reason: there was almost not a season at all due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It can’t be overstated enough that this season is going to be contingent on a lot of discipline for all 12 of the MAC programs, Central included. Football teams, unlike most other teams, require hundreds of bodies in close proximity to be able to operate at a normal capacity, making the resumption of a potential season mid-pandemic a proposition which could go awry at any point.

MAC officials noted the length and timing of the schedule, including no BYE weeks, was precisely to try and mitigate some of that risk, as well, given most MAC programs run the same academic schedule. Needless to say, the schedule is always subject to change.

With that out of the way, how does a six-game schedule affect CMU?

For one, it certainly grants them a few favors. They draw their toughest games at home, with cross-division rival Ohio, blood rival Western Michigan and Ball State all coming to Mt. Pleasant. But they’re also having to travel on even weeks, which might prove to be tough from a preparation standpoint.

CMU went 6-2 in MAC play in 2019, with their only losses suffered to Buffalo and Western Michigan, which were largely expected. Importantly, they went 4-1 in divisional games, which ultimately helped them to edge out WMU at the end of the year for the crown.

They did get lucky to draw Akron and BGSU as their other two cross-division games, and had to pull off a double-digit comeback to take down Ball State and put themselves in position to win the division against a beat-up Toledo at season’s end in the first place. In that light, 2019 can be read as a combination of luck (in the form of an all-Saturday schedule and strength of opponent) and also skill (a noticeable improvement in personnell and schemes.)

The MAC, as a conference, is severely competitive. The MAC West could have gone to any of the six teams at any point in the season, but Central happened to outsurvive them all in a testament to their mental fortitude. A six-game season will be one where mistakes are magnified, so it will come down to execution and discipline. Given last year’s results and changes to rosters over the offseason, CMU should be able to get above .500 and challenge for the division, but until we get to game action, it’ll be hard to know exactly how these teams look due to COVID restrictions.