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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Central Michigan Chippewas front seven

The Chippewas had one of the most aggressive lines in the MAC in 2021, and despite a handful of losses, should be

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Chippewas defense is centered upon their front seven, which is built to disrupt, disrupt and also... disrupt.

This is something they were excellent at doing in 2021, holding opponents to 34.4 percent conversion ratings on third down, good enough for ninth in the nation. This was thanks in part to one of the best rushing defenses in the country, as the Chippewas kept opponents down to 118.5 yards per game on the ground, best for 18th in the country. Their success in generating pressure and forcing punts resulted in a scoring defense of just 25.8 points per game, good enough for third-best in the MAC and placing them in the top half of programs.

The 2022 edition of the Chippewas front seven will be missing several of its biggest names, but a brief search down the roster shows that there is a lot of potential talent in some of the younger prospects-- bolstered in part by Jim McElwain's decision to redshirt the entire 2020 recruiting class, which happens to have had a lot of defensive talent in it.

Their success as a unit will depend on if they've developed and refined their skills over multiple camps and practices, which should be fairly easy since defensive coordinator Robb Akey has been in Mt. Pleasant since the start of the McElwain regime to help ease along development.

We look at the three positions on the front seven for who we expect to contribute at all those positions below:

Defensive ends

MAC Championship - Central Michigan v Miami Ohio Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The defensive end room will see the departure of not one, but two starters for the 2022 campaign, as Troy Hairston (graduation) and Amir Siddiq (transfer to Charlotte) will no longer be on the roster.

It presents a bit of an issue in terms of proven depth, but the projected starters should at least provide Chippewa fans some relief, as LaQuan Johnson, whose emergence as a freshman in the 2019 campaign showed flashes of promise, and Thomas Incoom, a former Division II standout, are penciled in as starters at the ends.

Johnson, a Flint native, had a role as a rotation end in 2021 after missing all of 2020 due to an ACL injury suffered in the first game of the season, finishing with 13 tackles, including four tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks in nine appearances (with five starts.)

His 2019 season was a great one, with 33 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss and six sacks on the season, so if he can get to those numbers again, it will be a major help for the Chippewas pass rush.

Incoom, who was a standout at D-II power Valdosta State, was also a rotational option in 2021, picking up two starts while appearing in all 13 games, collecting 28 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks. The jump in talent did not seem to phase Incoom, who slotted in at the end spot perfectly in Robb Akey's primary attacking scheme. With more cracks at the bat in 2022, he could improve on what are already some excellent numbers.

On-roster options for the backup end roles include fourth-year player Fred Stokes and a slew of redshirt freshman in Quindario Lee, Cade Cote, Jonah Pace and Michael Heldman, who all saw special teams play in 2021.

A handful of newcomers should also challenge for roles, with Myrtle Beach Collegiate's Ounar Conde (14 sacks and 23 tackles-for-loss in 2021), JUCO sacks leader Malik Denkins (31 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, 14 sacks at Hocking College in 2021) and consensus three-star recruit Kade Kostas, of Rockford [MI] HS, all arriving in the fall.

Defensive tackles

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Central Michigan at Miami Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive tackle will be the known quantity of the Chippewa front seven in 2021, with every contributor from last season returning to their previous positions in 2022.

The tackle duo of John Wesley Whiteside and Jacquez Bristol will be especially key to the aggressive nature of the Chippewa front, with sixth-year senior Robi Stuart returning from an injury which sidelined him for all of 2021 to provide depth and spirit. Tyrece Woods, a former Buffalo transfer, was a key rotation piece in 2021, while sophomore Jason Williams looks to make an impact as well.

Whiteside, a former Austin Peay transfer, was the surprise of 2021 for CMU, as the six-foot-one, 297 lb. tackle posted 22 tackles for 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks after coming in as a relatively unheralded prospect, showing a vicious burst which disrupted the backfield often.

Bristol has become a mainstay on the line since his debut as a true freshman in 2019, and had a good 2021 campaign as a full-time starter, tallying 36 tackles for 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, with three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

Stuart hasn't contributed since 2020, but 2019 was the yer which showed Stuart's promise as a prospect, finishing third-team all-MAC with 32 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks in CMU's MAC West title season. If Stuart can get to similar numbers in 2022, CMU will absolutely have the depth to make many opposing teams sweat.

Woods played in all 13 games, starting six, and picked up four tackles-for-loss and three sacks in his first season after arriving from Buffalo, and should be lined up to be a star contributor in the long-term plans post-2022, but should serve as even more depth for the Chips currently.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Central Michigan at Missouri Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where CMU's front seven will have to prove itself in 2022 is at the linebacker position, as they face some tough losses to the transfer portal in George Douglas (Southern Illinois) and Troy Brown (Ole Miss,) two upperclassmen linebackers who would have given the Chips some secure pieces to depend upon.

This isn't to say that what CMU has left over won't be capable of shouldering the load; last year's backers proved to be capable prospects despite their relative inexperience. Justin Whiteside and Kyle Moretti both played in all 13 games last season, with three combined starts and project to return to those positions once again in 2022.

Moretti, of Aravada, Colorado, was especially a revelation, finishing seventh on the team with 47 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, a sack and a forced fumble in his true freshman season, putting him up against some of the best upperclassmen on the roster.

Whiteside also proved to be a productive backer, with 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery in 2021, playing alongside Moretti. A year as an entrenched starter should allow Whiteside to get even better as well.

It's a bit murkier from there, as the third linebacker spot is often rotated with a third safety spot in this flexible 4-3 defense, with sophomores Fernando Sanchez III, Logan Guthrie, Ormondell Dingle and Corey Gildersleeve Jr. all expected to fight for the role.

We should have more clarity on that situation as fall camps get underway, but there is a nice two-man core for the Chippewas to build upon for the 2022 campaign.