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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Central Michigan skill positions

A handful of prospects who were expected to leave Mt. Pleasant on the offensive side of the ball decided to stay instead, giving CMU a formidable offense in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Central Michigan at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The gang is back in action in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, as the vast majority of the Chippewas’ key contributors at the offensive skill position players will return for the 2021 campaign.

This is a great sign for an offense which featured one of the most dangerous running attacks in the country in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, as the Chips ranked 16th in the country with 218 yards per game on the ground and 16 touchdowns, averaging 5.03 yards per rush in the process. The passing game—when healthy— can be just as threatening, with a pair of all-MAC first team receivers on the other end of the pass and capable tight ends who have proved to be dependable for moving the chains.

Last year’s Chippewa team, from an offensive standpoint, was one which faced limitations from the start. David Moore, the projected starter, lost his ability to play in the 2020 season due to a suspension for a performance-enhancing drug dating back to the 2019 season. He moved on in the offseason, opting to be part of the NFL Draft despite the suspension overturned in December 2020. This thrust former third-string QB Daniel Richardson into the starting role.

We’ll discuss the specifics of that later, but what needs to be said here is that as a result, the offensive philosophy leaned even more on the running game than usual, even employing former high school signal-caller Kalil Pimpleton and RB Kobe Lewis as Wildcat QBs to try and put their best playmakers on the field while Richardson (and eventually Ty Brock) learned the ropes.

2021 should see a return to normal operations for CMU, who molded most of their 2020 offense through the lens of COVID and NCAA red tape, as they’ll likely return to what worked best for them when they won the MAC West division in 2019.

With that in mind, we’ll take a look at the position groups the Chippewas will bring with them into the 2021 season.


Quarterbacks

  • Key departures: Ty Brock (retirement), David Moore (declared pro)
  • Key returnees: Daniel Richardson, John Keller
  • New faces: Tyler Pape (recruit), Jacob Sirmon (transfer)

The big question going into the 2021 season, much like it was for the 2020 season, is who will be taking the snaps at quarterback for the Chippewas.

Ty Brock, a former transfer with starting experience at Sam Houston State who appeared in two games in 2020, retired in the offseason. David Moore chose to move on to the professional level after losing his NCAA appeal in the offseason as well, with both players declining their extra year of eligibility granted by the COVID pandemic.

This means the QB1 battle will be one between a known asset in Daniel Richardson and an unknown player with great potential in Jacob Sirmon when fall camps resume.

It wasn’t expected he would be starting so early; Moore (and his predecessor Quintin Dormady) was largely expected to be the bridge QBs until CMU could groom a long-term successor in Richardson.

Richardson performed admirably when pressed into service last fall, finishing 63-of-99 passing for 714 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in four games (all starts), before succumbing to an injury. The five-foot-ten, 205 lb. Richardson has been something of a project for the current staff, as Richardson was one of Jim McElwain’s first recruits upon accepting the CMU job. Richardson showed a rocket arm, especially at distance, when he saw the field, but did struggle with passes that required more touch as the season progressed.

The flashes of potential Richardson showed, and his inherent advantage of knowing the playbook being on the roster the last two seasons, will position him as QB1 entering camps.

His main rival for the starting position will be Jacob Sirmon, a six-foot-five, 240 lb. former four-star prospect who transferred in from Washington this offseason. Sirmon was the fifth-ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018, per 247Sports, gaining Elite 11 and High School All-American awards for his career achievements at Bothell [WA] HS. Sirmon never got a chance to see the field in Seattle, leaving to make his mark elsewhere. He’ll hope to impress the staff who pursued him.

The role of QB3 will also be intriguing, with the departure of Brock. Former Cincinnati transfer John Keller was slotted for the spot prior to an off-field incident which resulted in several days of intensive care for a near-fatal shot to the chest. Thankfully, his recovery seems to be progressing well enought to be considered in the battle against true freshman Tyler Pape. Keller, who sat out in 2020 due to transfer rules, will have three years of eligibility starting this season. Pape is a redshirt candidate who could see a handful of dress appearances under the new NCAA rules, should he end up QB4.


Receivers and tight ends

  • Key departures: Bernhard Raimann (conversion)
  • Key returnees: Kalil Pimpleton, JaCorey Sullivan, Dallas Dixon, Hunter Buczkowski, Joel Wilson
  • New faces: Michael Hagelwald (Dayton), Kenny Brewer III (Valparaiso), Zahir Swann (conversion)

The receiver room at CMU is as deep and brimming with potential as any in the Mid-American Conference, and quite unexpectedly so. 2019 All-MAC first-team receivers Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan opted to use their extra year of eligibility this offseason, instead of declaring for the NFL Draft, taking a bet on themselves to try and get tape for pro scouts and nab a MAC title before they graduate.

Pimpleton is one of the most dynamic receivers in the country, earning second-team all-MAC honors in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season after nabbing 26 receptions for 277 yards and two touchdowns, rushing 16 times for 134 yards and three touchdowns, and completing 5-of-8 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He also returns kicks and punts as a cherry on top, averaging 82 all-purpose yards per game. Pimpleton, at five-foot-nine and 187 lbs., can line up at four different spots on the field, including the X receiver, Z receiver, halfback and quarterback, making him a must-mark for any defense.

Sullivan, who has been a teammate of Pimpleton’s since their days at Muskegon [MI] HS, is a great complimentary piece along the line of scrimmage, standing at six-foot-two, 220 lbs. Sullivan excels when targeted on outside looks, especially when Pimpleton is playing decoy or deployed in the middle. Sullivan, like many CMU players, had a down year in 2020, with 16 catches for 177 yards, but in 2019, he had 57 catches for 808 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 14.2 yards per reception (third-best in the MAC.)

Dallas Dixon, a transfer from Division II Northern Michigan, was a pleasant surprise in what was otherwise a down year for the receiving corps, proving a capable option at X or Z with a good blend of speed and steady hands. He overtook Sullivan for the starting spot in all four of his appearances, finishing 2020 with 13 catches for 263 yards and a touchdown.

Sullivan and Dixon are expected to battle for the outside positions in fall camps.

There are a handful of other contributors who could also see the field in 2021 at the receiver positions, including run block specialist Drayton Law, promising redshirt freshman Javon Gantt, Valparaiso transfer Kenny brewer III and converted running back Zahir Swann.

The tight end room loses a promising tight end prospect in Bernhard Raimann after he excelled at offensive tackle last season in what was originally meant to be a temporary move, but still returns some intriguing talent in 2021.

Petoskey, Michigan’s own Joel Wilson, a former high school quarterback, will lead the position room as the most experiences on-line TE remaining, racking up five receptions for 50 yards in five games (three starts) in 2020. He showed good promise in run blocking, but has struggled to stay on the field thus far in his CMU career due to injury. Keegan Cosseau, standing at six-foot-five, 255 lbs., returned to the TE room to compliment Wilson along the line after spending a season cross-training at defensive end in 2019. He’ll likely get a lot of looks in two tight end packages.

Hunter Buczkowski is the returning move tight end, often lined up at fullback to be an additional blocker in the running game. He has also show the occasional ability to catch passes from an off-line position, making him a valuable part of the offense.

Dayton transfer Michael Hegelwald could also battle for a backup position as an on-line end, with protoypical size at six-foot-four, 245 lbs.


Running backs

  • Departures: Zahir Swann (conversion)
  • Key returnees: Kobe Lewis, Lew Nichols III, Darius Bracy

There are no major departures in the running back room, ensuring that the Chippewas’ Top 25 running game returns in 2021.

Kobe Lewis, standing at five-foot-eleven, 208 lbs., will be the lead back handling the majority of carries after a 105 carry, 468 rushing yard season in 2020, leading the Chippewas with seven total touchdowns (six rushing, one reception.) Lewis was a workhorse, averaging 129.5 all-purpose yards per game to lead the team by a country mile. He’s a true dual threat, with 17 receptions and 106 yards in 2020, making Lewis a tricky assignment.

Lew Nichols III made a good impression in his first full season in the Maroon and Gold, serving as Lewis’ spell back in 2020. Nichols picked up MAC Freshman of the Year honors after rushing for a team-high 508 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries, as well as getting 10 receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown, finishing behind Lewis for second-best in all-purpose yards per game with 102.8.

Darius Bracy made the transition from defensive back to running back in 2020, and saw time at Wildcat QB, as he played QB in an option offense in high school, rushing for 95 yards on 16 carries. His role in 2021 could be something similar, as the package did see some success in spots. With a full season under his belt to convert, he could also see a rotational role if needed for the offense.

Under the three upperclassmen are four freshman, who we don’t have a lot of reads on just yet, including Christian Brown, Myles Bailey, Marion Lukes and Jake Tefelski.


The coaching staff on the offensive side did experience some changes in the offseason, most notably with the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Frye, who left for the Miami Dolphins quarterbacks coach position.

Former wide receivers coach Kevin Barbay will take over for Frye, bringing OC experience from his stint at Stephen F. Austin in 2018, and chemistry with McElwain over two previous stops. Barbay will also coach QBs, with prior experience at Texas A&M-Commerce and Stephen F. Austin.

Replacing Barbay, who was instrumental in the development of Pimpleton and Dixon, will be Alvin Slaughter, who gets his first FBS position coaching job. Slaughter has previous WR coaching experience at FCS Northwestern State, where he mentored three All-American receivers in two seasons. He also has pipelines in the Florida recruiting scene, having been a coach at Monsignour Pace HS for nine years, including a title run in 2003.

Tavita Thompson returns for his fourth season as tight ends and tackles coach at CMU, and has a great resume in that time, mentoring Tony Poljan’s conversion from quarterback to all-MAC tight end, and looking over Bernhard Raimann’s development as both a tight end and a tackle. Prior to CMU, he also coached tight ends at Nebraska, helping in the development of current NFL’er Cethan Carter and program TE reception leader Tyler Hoppes.

Cornell Jackson returns for his third season as running backs coach for CMU, continuing his work on turning CMU from the worst running team in the country in 2018 to a Top 25 rushing offense over the last two seasons. A journeyman coach, Jackson has been a position coach for four decades, with eight different stops as a running backs coach, most recently at UTEP. His 2019 backs both plateaued over 1,000 yards apiece, marking a program first, and his backs were on pace for similar numbers if there was a full season in 2020.

With the sheer amount of returning talent and coaching pedigree in Mt. Pleasant, there’s optimism for a collective rebound after a 2020 season that threw a lot of wrenches in the works. If CMU can reclaim some of the passing numbers they had in 2019 to pair with a strong running attack, this team could challenge for a division title with some of the bigger heavyweights in the conference.