At the start of the 2019 season, no one expected the Central Michigan Chippewas to make the run they would end up accompishing.
The Chips were coming off a program-worst 1-11 record in 2018, a low-water mark in the program’s proud history and tradition, and a litany of talent absconded for greener pastures during the changeover from former head coach and alum John Bonamego (now special teams coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams) to former Florida head coach Jim McElwain.
The move paid immediate dividends, as the Chips would go worst-to-first en route to a MAC West division title, CMU’s first since the 2009 season, and finish 8-6 with an appearance in the New Mexico Bowl vs. San Diego State. CMU very nearly stole away the MAC championship title as well, mounting a furious comeback rally before ultimately failing to convert a late Hail Mary to fall to the Miami RedHawks.
It’s the dawn of a new season in Mt. Pleasant, and there’s now a heap of expectation upon the Maroon and Gold, even despite the COVID-restricted six-game schedule. What are some of the storylines to look forward to for the Chippewas?
A re-shuffled offensive line and tight end rotation
CMU will return exactly one of their starters along the offensive line in 2020, with Steve Eipper, Clay Walderczak, and Oge Udeogu all graduating in the offseason, and right tackle Luke Goedeke lost to a season-ending injury in preseason camp. Senior guard Derek Smith is the lone returnee from 2019, occupying the left guard position.
Understandably, this still leaves some concern about how the line will be constructed, and who will occupy which positions.
Some good news on that front is that two sophomores look to fill at least a handful of those positions, with sophomores Deiyantai Powell-Woods and Danny Motowski expected to compete for starting roles after being key rotational pieces in 2019 at both tackle and guard. Former 2018 starter Jamezz Kimbrough brings some much-needed experience and is fully healthy after nursing an injury in 2019. He’ll be likely the Week 1 starter at center.
This leaves one more spot, specifically at tackle, which could go to several players, none of whom have starting experience, including converted defensive end/tight end prospect Keegan Cosseau, converted tight end Bernhard Raimann, Nick Follmer, Tyden Ferris and Romello Tarver. We likely won’t have clairty on the position battles along the line until the depth charts are released prior to their game vs. Ohio.
A secondary concern from a blocking perspective is the derth of experience at tight end. Tony Poljan transferred to Virginia in the offseason, leaving Raimann, his primariy backup in 2019, as the slotted starter. He’s now fighting for a starting tackle spot, which leaves Joel Wilson (a former high school QB), who missed all but three games last season, and Austin Hergott (a former QB) as the remaining “true” tight end options. Fullback Hunter Buczkowski could slot in as a move TE 2 or 3 due to his versatility as a blocker.
We could see a lot of shuffling along the front five (or six or seven) for the first handful of games before the situation is settled there. For an offense which was one of the highest scoring in the league in 2019 thanks to their ability to block the run, this will be an unheard of amount of change to navigate in a shortened season.
How do you replace Jonathan Ward?
The surface answer here is “Kobe Lewis, obviously”, and you’re not necessarily wrong to say so.
But with Lewis moving up to RB1 duties, this leaves an obvious gap in the carry distribution which was key to the running game’s success in 2019. Ward and Lewis were both 1,000-yard backs last season, and combined for 100-yard games at least three times. For Lewis to be as efficient as Ward was in the “Ward” role, he’ll need a partner who can show the same burst and explosion in the “Lewis” spot.
Which is all a long way of saying: who’s the next man up?
Promising redshirt freshman Lew Nichols III will likey take over at RB2. Nichols is the only back on the roster with any experience (gaining 89 yards in four games in 2019,) as senior Kumehnnu Gwilly made the conversion to linebacker in the offseason. Nichols certainly has the pedigree for success, rushing for 1,078 yards and 23 touchdowns in his senior season at Cass Tech [MI] HS, winning a state title in 2016. True freshmen Zahir Swann, a speedster receiver from New Jersey who is making a late position change, and Christian Brown, a fall camp addition, are the only other players on the chart.
This is a rushing attack which had 2,539 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2019. A crash to reality could be coming to that aspect of the offense in 2020, especially if it takes an injury it cannot afford. CMU was able to do last season when Ward went down in the early slate of the schedule, with Lewis showing himself capable and senior Romello Ross (graduated) relieving him when necessary, with Gwilly as an optional “victory cigar.” Such a plan likely isn’t on the table this season, and one has to wonder if the Chippewas will adjust their carry distribution or scheme to try and prevent a costly injury along the way.
What’s going on at quarterback?
CMU is experiencing a major case of Schrodinger’s Quarterback, with 2019 spot starter David Moore both being the presumed starter and not being eligible to play at the same time.
Moore, who threw for 1,143 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions in four games in 2019, was handed a six-game suspension for use of a banned substance last year, and was initially meant to serve it starting the sixth game of last season, which would have made him eligible on Oct. 10 vs. NIU under the old 2020 schedule. The team appealed the ruling immediately, and per NCAA regulations, Moore was not allowed to participate in team activities until the appeal was decided.
Fast forward to Oct. 2020, and the only thing we know about Moore’s is that he is, at least, allowed to practice with the team after losing out on said appeal back in March. Other than that, the suspension, which supposedly ends this month, has yet to be lifted, pending further clarification from the NCAA.
For now, CMU is treating the QB postion as a three-way battle, between Moore, redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson and transfer junior Ty Brock.
Richardson got some garbage time duties in the New Mexico Bowl, but otherwise has no game experience. He served as third-string QB in 2019, primarily relaying signals. Richardson, despite his listed five-foot-ten frame, has a reputation as a gamer at QB, winning a Florida state title and setting passing records in the competitive Miami high school football scene. Ty Brock, a transfer from Sam Houston State, has starting experience under his belt at the FCS level, throwing for 2,417 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also running for three touchdowns. Brock has comped favorably to Tommy Lazzaro, last year’s Wildcat quarterback.
CMU’s coaching staff, for what it’s worth, has been pretty mum about who will be the starter come Nov. 4 vs. Ohio. Should Moore be allowed to play, it’s his spot to lose. But if he isn’t, CMU isn’t bereft of options between Richardson’s potential and Brock’s experience. Regardless, stability at the position will be vital for the upcoming six-game stretch, and CMU could find themselves behind the eight ball if the choice goes sour.
Can the defense navigate question marks in the backfield?
The position which perhaps faces the most uncertainty schematically is the defensive backfield, specifically the cornerbacks.
Kyron McKinnie-Harper, who had one of the best true freshman seasons in recent memory for CMU, is no longer on the roster after committing computer theft at the tail end of the 2019 season, leaving an unexpected gap at one of the corners. Montrae Braswell, a hybrid DB who excelled in pass coverage, was also an unexpected departure, transferring to Missouri State.
This leaves four players battling for two starting positions and the all-important nickel spot. Brandon Brown, who was initially a starter before losing reps to McKinnie-Harper, and Darius Bracy, who was similarly Wally Pipp’d by Braswell, are returnees to the roster who could be competing for those starting spots after backing them in 2019. Complicating matters is the dual arrivals of Richard Bowens III (Iowa State transfer) and Brandon Edwards (Florida, redshirted last season), as well as former Independence [KS] CC product Dishon McNary (academically ineligible in 2019.)
The losses of McKinnie-Harper and Braswell cannot be stated enough. The two freshmen looked like they had the positions more or less locked down for the future, and combined for 70 tackles, 20 pass break-ups, 1.5 sacks and an interception in 2019. The next best leading returnee in PBU’s is Brown, with seven, while Bracy returns as the best tackler (24) amongst the corners. No other corners registered interceptions in 2019, with LB Troy Brown and SAF Alonzo McCoy each hauling in three.
CMU’s constant rotation of corners in 2019 resulted in finding a great pairing towards the end, but as a result, they gave up a lot of strange games in the air, perhaps not more apparent than giving up 24 points to a 0-12 Akron team or giving up 28 points thanks to a 263 yard, three TD performance performance to a 1-11 New Mexico State team. They’ll likely end up in a similar situation in 2020, rotating corners in and out until they find a combination that works.
A good bettor would probably tab Edwards and Brown as CBs 1/2, with Bracy and Bowens getting chances to rotate outside, while McNary is a likely favorite at the nickel. We’ll see how the rotation looks on field, but at least if they’re slow to gell up like they were last season, the Chippewas have a solid safety rotation and linebacking corps which have proven to be excellent in coverage to get them by.
How will CMU fare with a target on their backs?
This is a less concrete point than the others, but it’s still something to watch for Central as they attempt to navigate the season.
CMU increased their win total by seven games from 2018 to 2019, which is an unbelievable feat—and a testament to the amount of talent on the roster. A good part of that talent returns for the 2020 season, but it’ll be a much different mood in the room.
For as wonderful as the 2019 season was, CMU was largely playing with nothing to lose, all considered. Underestimated and with all the motivation in the world, CMU set a target goal and absolutely knocked it out of the park, mere inches from attaining their goal in the end. 2020 presents a much differnet challenge for the Chippewas, who are suddenly the titleholder in a truncated season where minor mistakes can be a lot more impactful than in a usual full season.
CMU has more-or-less been a 6-7 win team since the 2010 season, with a bowl season usually being the end goal. For a proud program with its history of MAC success, this is more or less a bit of a let-down.
Now, they’ve made the promised land, well ahead of schedule. But it’s very hard to stay there, as WMU and Toledo have shown in recent years, with both programs regressing after thier division title grabs. CMU will have to show resiliency if they want to be able to go 4-2 or better in 2020, which is likely what they’ll have to do to stay on top of the West division, which has been one of the most competitive in all of college football in the last five years.
At this point, CMU’s athletic department has invested too much for the Chips to fall back to being average. They most certainly can’t afford to rest on their laurels if they hope to continue their positive momentum in terms of building up their program over the long-term. Will this sort of pressure to perform be a positive or negative for Central moving forward?
The motivation of McElwain in a six-game season
The hiring of McElwain, made by now-former athletic director Michael Alford, was an absolute coup for a program the size of Central’s, bringing instant name recognition and pedigree to the mid-Michigan institution. The excitement was apparent; a long-awaited project to upgrade Kelly/Shorts Stadium was fully-funded within days of the announcement, and the final touches to what is now the Chippewa Champions Center were scheduled to be unveiled in the first game of CMU’s 2021 original season.
McElwain absolutely delivered on his promise to make the team better on the field, and it’s clear the players enjoy the culture he’s created in Mt. Pleasant. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the McElwain era, the Chippewas seem to be in a great position to make a run at the MAC West title once again, well ahead of schedule.
But with the uncertainty of the COVID-affected season, outside sources could start to affect team morale, namely, the coaching carousel.
McElwain’s instant success will certainly make him an attractive option for any schools potentially looking for a quick turnaround, even if the sample size after this season will ultimately be 20 games at the helm. It certainly helps that his buyout is affordable, sitting at $1 million this season. McElwain was coaching in the SEC only three years ago, and didn’t leave on his own terms. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that he would jump at a chance to get back in the Power Five if given the chance.
It can’t be denied that a six-game season will be a stressful challenge, and it also cannot be denied that if McElwain and staff handle it well, they could find themselves fielding great outside offers. Alternatively, if it starts to go sour, what does that mean for a potential Year 3? At the end of the day, CMU fans won’t be able to help but think in the back of their minds where the motivation could be for McElwain on a weekly basis.
Will the pressure of the season maifest in a positive or negative fashion for the team and it staff— and if so, what will the fallout ultimately be?