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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Central Michigan secondary

A traditionally strong positional group looks to keep the offense in front of them after a strange year in Mt. Pleasant.

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

The pipeline of Chippewa defensive backs to the NFL has been fairly strong over the last decade or so, most notably with Sean Murphy-Bunting being a major contributor to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run in the 2020 season. Other defensive backs to find success in the professional ranks include Xavier Crawford (currently with the Chicago Bears); Jahleel Addae (currently in his second stint with the Los Angeles Chargers,) and Kavon Frazier (signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason.)

It is that lineage which attracts prospects to Mt. Pleasant to don the Maroon and Gold, and this season, CMU returns a lot of intriguing prospects to the fold in the defensive backfield.

But it has to be noted that the passing defense Central posted in 2020 was, unequivocally, a bottom-tier unit. It was truly boom-or-bust, with the ability to get home in the pass rushing game, but also leaving itself liable to big plays when the ball was in the air. This was especially evident in the Western Michigan game, where the Chips were gashed for 382 yards and five touchdowns, with D’Wayne Eskridge— a recent second-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks— gathering three touchdowns on four receptions, with runs of 33 yards, 72 yards and 85 yards, respectively.

The unit ranked 120th of 127 eligible programs (with three teams opting out due to COVID), giving up about 58 percent of passes for an average of 16.36 yards per reception and 297.2 yards per game through the air, giving up 15 touchdowns in six games.

It’s notable that there were some required changes in the starting rotation with sudden departures affecting the lineups, but that still doesn’t quite excuse everything on-field in 2020.

We’ll try to break down why some of that happened as we go through the profiles below:


Cornerbacks

  • Key departures: Kyron McKinnie-Harper (dismissal), Darius Bracy (conversion to halfback), Brandon Brown (transfer to UL-Monroe, per Twitter bio)
  • Key returnees: Dishon McNary, Richard Bowens III, Daedae Hill, Donte Kent
  • New faces: Irone Jackson, DeAnthony Beckton, Zion Fitzpatrick (JUCO)

The most noticeable gap in CMU’s outside coverage was Kyron McKinnie-Harper, who was dismissed just two months before the resumption of the 2020 season due to an arrest for computer crimes dating back to the 2019 season. While technically a departure from last season, it’s important to note just how much the CMU defense missed his presence.

McKinnie-Harper was a revelation as a redshirt freshman in 2019, clamping down defenses as the Chips’ lead coverage man, plucking 10 pass break-ups and forcing two fumbles, while also making 36 tackles in 11 appearances (nine starts.) He was set to be a big part of the future of the secondary for at least the next three seasons, but his sudden departure (along with some previous transfers or conversions of depth pieces) left CMU with only four cornerbacks. As a result, Brandon Edwards, a natural safety, was forced to convert for depth purposes, a year removed from his transfer sit-down year under the old NCAA rules.

This left the cornerbacks on edge more or less through the season, and teams took advantage of it, especially on the outside, where Edwards and JUCO transfer Dishon McNary, who had one game of experience prior to 2020, had to do the majority of mop-up duty.

Brandon Brown, a former rotational contribution with starting experience, seemed to fall out of favor in 2020, logging just one tackle in two appearances, eventually transferring. Darius Bracy, who was cross-trained to play at halfback in the 2020 offseason, is a full conversion this season, making the room even thinner.

The four names that do remain will be the names you’re getting familiar with once again in 2021, with the hope being that a year under fire will help the unit grow in cohesion.

Starting on the outside and going in, McNary should return to his starting role after occupying the role in all six games of 2020. The former Independence CC product was a first-team all-MAC selection after collecting 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, six pass break-ups, an interception and a fumble recovery. He figures to be a key part of the secondary as their main cover corner.

There will be some battling for the other outside corner, with Brian Edwards, who manned the opposite side, assumed to be returning to the safety room. There will be a number of contenders for that role, with both returning and new faces expected to compete for playing time.

Amongst the returnees are freshmen Daedae Hill and Donte Kent, who were rotation options in the 2020 season. Both Hill and Kent were mentioned by Jim McElwain as players the staff looks forward to evaluating for the starting role. Hill had 10 tackles in 2020, and is an intriguing prospect who had several Power Five offers as a recruit. He’s expected to be a building block for the future of the defense with his big six-foot-one, 180 lb. frame. Kent, a five-foot-eleven, 185 lb. Pennsylvania native, has more experience between the two freshmen, notching appearances in all six games and a start in the season finale vs. Toledo in 2020, finishing 2020 with 18 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.

Newcomer Zion Fitzpatrick also transfers in from Southwestern Oklahoma State via Independence [KS] CC to compete for a starting role. Fitzpatrick saw no time due to COVID shutting down the season for SW OK State, allowing him immediate eligibility as a junior. Not much is known about Fitzpatrick at present; the six-foot-one, 205 lb. Chicago native has no 247Sports profile and no registered stats at the JUCO level. We do, however, have his Hudl tape, and it shows someone with positional versatility who has great instinct for positioning himself to catch the ball, even if his 40-meter dash of 4.55 might seem a tad slow.

Richard Bowens III returns to reclaim his spot as the nickelback, though he could also push for the outside role if the staff feels he is better suited there. The former Iowa State transfer picked up 19 tackles and four pass breakups in six game appearances (four starts) in 2020 after gaining immediate eligibility. At six-foot-one, 193 lbs., Bowens brings prototypical slot corner size and speed to the position, a plus for a secondary which depends on coverage in the middle of the field to force passes outside.

Some names to keep an eye on for developmental purposes include freshmen Trey Jones, DeAnthony Becton, Nahree Biggins and Irone Jackson; and sophomore Tyrese Wynn.


Safeties

  • Key departures: None
  • Key returnees: Brian Edwards, Devonni Reed, Alonzo McCoy, Willie Reid, Gage Kreski
  • New faces: Elijah Rikard (recruit), Danny MacLean (preferred walk-on)

The good news for CMU is that for all the struggles they had on the corners in 2020, their safeties were fairly reliable. Head coach Jim McElwain expressed confidence in the safeties, saying the depth at the position makes him “comfortable” in their defensive evaluations.

It’s hard not to feel that way, with 2021 first-team all-MAC safety Willie Reid and 2021 third-team all-MAC defensive back Devonni Reed likely starting at the strong and free positions, respectively.

Reid was a high-flier on the Chippewas defense in his first full year as a starter, with 35 tackles, a league-leading three interceptions and two fumble recoveries (tied for first in the MAC.) Effective in both the run and pass games, Reid is close to linebacker size at six-foot-one, 206 lbs., and has clear sideline-to-sideline ability, finding the football wherever it happens to be. He’ll be a cornerstone for the secondary in 2021 and beyond, as he’s a classified sophomore who will be eligible for the next three seasons.

Devonni Reed has been a dependable name for the Chips since bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in the doomed 2018 campaign. 2020 saw him tie for second in total tackles (42) and third on the team in solo stops (24), while also snagging one interception. Reed has always had a good nose in run support, which as been a strength for CMU in recent years, but could use a bit of work in coverage.

Brian Edwards returns to the safety room after a year spent as an outside corner with three starts, and should fight for a starting spot against Reed. Edwards’ coverage was fine, even with a lack of true numbers to evaluate in the shortened season, but should look a bit better when he’s able to play at his usual spot on the defense. At six-foot-two, 192 lbs., Edwards has the size and speed to be a contributor.

Alonzo McCoy will also be in the battle for a starting or rotating spot at strong or third safety, having been listed as an “OR” starter all season in 2020. McCoy had 25 tackles and a fumble recovery in six game appearances with three starts, showing himself as a reliable spot starter with upside.

Gage Kreski, a St. Ignace native, should once again compete with Rollian Sturkey for rotation duty at free safety, but both will likely see a lot of time on special teams. Elijah Rikard and Danny MacLean will be developmental prospects, with Rikard expected to be a prospect in the vein of a Troy Brown. MacLean, a walk-on from Detroit Country Day, could also translate to a strong safety or outside backer with his six-foot, 207 lb. frame.


Position coaches

Michael Zordich is the new defensive backs coach in Mt. Pleasant, having transferred over after six years down the highway at the University of Michigan, where he previously served as a defensive assistant.

In his time at Ann Arbor, Zordich assisted in creating one of the country’s fiercest pass defenses, with over half of the units in his time placing Top 3 against the pass, including two first-place campaigns in 2016 and 2017. Zordich was also responsible for developing three Jim Thorpe semifinalists and three All-Americans at the secondary positions.

Prior to Michigan, Zordich was a defensive assistant and safeties coach for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2009-14 and a safeties coach at Youngstown State in 2014.

Zordich is a former defensive back himself, and was a defensive captain for the 1985 Penn State team before having an 11-year professional career in the NFL between three teams.