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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Central Michigan front seven

Defense has been the name of the game for CMU in recent years, and 2021 looks to be no different, especially near the line of scrimmage.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-Central Michigan vs San Diego State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Central Michigan has relied on one of the conference’s best defenses in the last five years in order to remain competitive. Their reliance on havoc plays on the defensive line, combined with sticky coverage on the boundaries, has traditionally brought CMU success. Even the ill-fated 2018 team sported one of the best defenses in the MAC, keeping them in more games than they likely deserved to be in.

2020, however, was a step backwards on the defensive unit as a whole, finishing 82nd in total defense, with 427.7 yards per game given up and 23 opposing touchdowns to CMU’s 22. (For comparison’s sake, Ball State, the MAC champions, ranked 84th in the country with 429.9 yards per game allowed and 27 opposing touchdowns to 26 scored.) We’ll talk about their apparent struggles in the secondary in more detail later, but the front seven was almost certainly not the issue for the Chippewas in the shortened season.

CMU placed three players from their front seven on the first-team all-MAC roster in 2020, including co-defensive player of the year DE/OLB Troy Hairston II, as the unit produced 18 sacks and 44 tackles-for-loss over six games, with Hairston directly responsible for a league-leading 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss. Those numbers put the defensive unit second in the conference in total sacks and total tackles-for-loss, behind only rival Western Michigan and tied with Buffalo, respectively.

Those numbers should more or less return with the full season coming up in 2021, as the vast majority of the front seven returns to Mt. Pleasant.

There are only a couple of notable departures to note, as first-team all-MAC defensive lineman Mohammed Diallo (19 tackles, three sacks, 9.5 tackles-for-loss) graduated and was summarily drafted by the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, while linebacker Chuck Jones, who appeared in all 14 games in 2019 with 43 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss, entered the transfer portal and has seemingly committed to Division II Kentucky State University, per his Twitter bio.

Some seniors who were eligible to graduate decided instead to take their COVID years offered by the NCAA, ensuring the Chippewas returned most every major contributor from the 2020 season, making CMU a contender for a quick turnaround.

We’ll go through the positional groups below:


Defensive linemen

  • Key departures: Mohammed Diallo (graduation, CFL draftee)
  • Key returnees: Troy Hairston II, LaQuan Johnson (injury), Jacques Bristol, Robi Stuart, Amir Siddiq
  • New faces: Thomas Incoom (transfer), Quindario Lee (JUCO)

The defensive trench is perhaps the deepest position on the Chippewa sideline, with several all-MAC worthy talents lining up to fill the gaps.

It goes without saying that returning the co-defensive player of the year in Troy Hairston II will do a lot towards contributing to the Chippewas’ attacking success. Hairston was by every measure the best player on the defense in 2020, finishing the season with 41 tackles, five sacks, 12 tackles-for-loss, a force fumble and a fumble recovery in just six games. Hairston’s skill as a hybrid end was simply undeniable; at five-foot-eleven, 245 lbs., Hairston possessed the speed to close in on the backfield quickly with finesse over larger tackles, resulting in his being one of the best disruptors in the league.

Hairston should get some help in plying his craft, with LaQuan Johnson, 2019’s starter at defensive end, returning after sustaining an injury in the first half of CMU’s first game in 2020. Johnson was a revelation in his first full season of games as a redshirt freshman, moving from tackle to end, picking up 33 tackles (25 of which were solo), six sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss in 13 games (12 starts) for CMU. At six-foot-three, 260 lbs., Johnson is an imposing figure who could serve as a nice power compliment to Hairston’s speedier style of play. Assuming Johnson returns to health, there’s no reason for him not to pick up where he left off in 2019.

Amir Siddiq, a fellow hybrid end who converted last season like Hairston, also returns to fulfill a potential role as a rotational end after a season which saw him pick up 10 tackles and three sacks.

The defensive tackle situation is all but in Sharpie, with sophomore Tico Brown and senior Robi Stuart both expected to return to their traditional roles in the Chippewas’ 4-3 defense. Brown, at six-foot-two, 285 lb., caught many eyes in the 2020 campaign, earning third-team all-MAC honors from Pro Football Focus after picking up 14 tackles (13 solo) in six starts, eclipsing his totals from his 12-game redshirt freshman campaign. Stuart, a native of nearby Saginaw, Michigan, was a reliable gap-filler for the Chippewas, even if his 2020 numbers were down from his 2019 campaign. Stuart picked up 16 tackles last season, keeping pace with his previous numbers. He’ll need to find his get-home pace again to help the Chips improve in 2021, as he notched zero sacks or tackles-for-loss a season removed from getting three sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss.

Jacques Bristol, traditionally a nose tackle for CMU in recent seasons, could once again return to fill that role. The six-foot-one, 302 lb. tackle from Sarasota, Florida, had six tackles and a sack in six appearances in 2020. He’s shown the gumption to be a good starting-caliber player, with 23 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks in 14 games (six starts) in 2019.

The most intriguing name in the defensive line rotation could be Thomas Incoom, a Division II transfer from Valdosta State. Incoom, a former tight end recruit in high school, made the conversion to defense seamlessly, earning first-team all-Gulf South Conference honors in 2020 after accumulating 33 tackles, nine sacks, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He’s eligible immediately due to transferring two levels forward, which means the six-foot-four, 240 lb. Stone Mountain, Georgia, native will have two years to compete for playing time at the end position that is a vital part of the CMU defensive construct.

Ends Max Saylor (returning from injury), Fred Stokes and Evan Plate, who bring a combined 29 game appearances of experience, all return to the roster in 2021 and could see special team or backup roles. Quindario Lee, a JUCO product from Fort Scott [KS] CC, joins the roster as a freshman and could see time as a rotational tackle, standing at six-foot-five, 285 lbs. Freshmen Jason Williams, Jonathan Decker and Marcus Young, will likely get the redshirt treatment while the staff evaluates and develops them into their future positions. Williams and Decker figure to translate into tackles, while Young could be an end in the mold of LaQuan Johnson.


Linebackers

  • Key departures: Chuck Jones (transfer)
  • Key returnees: Troy Brown, Corey Gildersleeve Jr., George Douglas
  • New faces: Marcel Lewis (transfer), Lawai’a Brown

The loss of Chuck Jones to transfer doesn’t hurt a lot on the surface, as he had lost his starting duties in the 2020 season, but it could end up affecting the Chips from a depth standpoint, as Jones was a starter for the 2019 MAC West division title team.

Outside of the three projected starters, it’s difficult to project who will end up as the OLB or MLB 2 in this 4-3 look, leaving CMU vulnerable to having to play unproven talent in the case of a significant injury. Hairston and Siddiq, who occupy hybrid roles, could technically be considered to be on depth charts at the outside spots on an emergency basis, but those two players are likely staying at the ends after their success last season.

Here’s what we do know: the linebackers who return to the roster are as good as any in the conference.

The corps is highlighted by senior Troy Brown, the six-foot-two, 205 lb. former converted safety from Flint, Michigan. The two-time first-team all-MAC linebacker once again excelled in the 2020 season, with 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss, while also compiling three pass breakups and a fumble in six games. Brown is a hard-hitting, high-flying linebacker, with elite football intelligence. The vocal leader of the team, Brown is as spirited as they come, and his intangibles translate very well onto the field, as the team has been noticeably better since his insertion into the lineup in 2019.

Junior George Douglas overtook Jones for a spot in the linebacker corps late in 2019 and never looked back, leading the Chippewas defense with 45 tackles from the middle of the defense in 2020. The Ypsilanti, Michigan, native was especially good in one-on-one situations, picking up 31 solo tackles (best on the team) to go with two tackles-for-loss and a sack. Douglas also picked up an interception and a fumble recovery in 2020.

The early favorite for the third staring spot seems to be Michigan State transfer Marcel Lewis. A three-star prospect per 247Sports, Lewis chose to go to MSU over CMU and other MAC schools back in 2019, during Jim McElwain’s first full recruiting cycle. Lewis had three appearances as a true freshman, maintaining his redshirt status prior to the COVID-affected 2020 season. Lewis opted out for health reasons, eventually going into the transfer portal. Lewis ended up in Mt. Pleasant as a result, and he certainly has the potential for success, as he was a two-time Associated Press Division 1-2 first team all-state selection, ranked the #3 linebacker in the state and the #31 interior backer in the country in 2019.

After that, it starts to become a struggle as to who will be competing for spots, with much of the rest of the linebacker crews limited in experience.

Junior backer Carlton Cleophat returns the most experience on the roster of the options remaining, with 18 appearances for the Chippewas, but only has three tackles to speak of. Sophomore Nick Aspey has similar numbers, with four tackles on 14 appearances. Kumehnnu Gwilly, a senior who gained a reputation as a human victory cigar at halfback in 2019, has four tackles in six games. Other options have one appearance or are a true/redshirt freshman.

Some potential options include redshirt freshman Logan Guthrie, an Alpena, Michigan, product who will be in his third year on campus despite his status, and Lawai’a Brown, a three-star linebacking prospect from Hawai’i, per 247Sports. Brown is an intriguing player, coming from the same national powerhouse program as Tua Taigovailoa, and has already gained 20 pounds in an effort to bulk up. Brown was a first-team all-Interscholastic League of Honolulu selection, and a similar profile in body to Troy Brown, so he could be a project the staff works on for the future.


Robb Akey returns for his third season at the helm of the defense, and his frentic, aggressive 4-3 look has been exactly what CMU has needed since McElwain took over in Mt. Pleasant. In 2020, his unit was near the top in the confernece in havoc plays (sacks and tackles-for-loss) and the best in the MAC in interceptions (eight), showing off big play capability, even if the season results weren’t quite to par.

Akey brings decades of experience to the role, with stops at Florida, Idaho (head coach) and Washington State as a defensive coordinator and/or defensive line coach in the college level, while also bringing in three years of professional position coaching experience with the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Football Team.

Tim Skipper returns as linebackers coach in 2021, adding assistant head coaching duties in the offseason. Skipper has been instrumental in forming Troy Brown into an all-MAC prospect in his time at CMU, while finding working pieces to give the front seven some bite. Skipper has been a linebackers coach at the college level every season dating back to 2006, with stops at Fresno State, Colorado State, Florida and UNLV prior to coming to Mt. Pleasant. He also served as an AHC under McElwain in the final two seasons of McElwain’s term at Colorado State.

Ian Scott joins the staff in his first positional coaching position, handling the defensive linemen after previous coach Justin Hinds departed late in the offseason to take over as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator at Western Carolina. Scott, a defensive assistant at UCF for the previous three seasons, has experience with McElwain at Florida, serving as a graduate assistant in 2017. Scott brings six years of NFL experience, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2006, to the DL room.