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2023 Central Michigan Football Positional Previews: Offensive line

The line will look pretty different in the interior for CMU in 2023. Can they improve on a miserable performance from last season?

Central Michigan v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It feels like we’re a broken record at this point, but the story of the 2022 season for the Central Michigan Chippewas offense is it was a battered, rebuilding unit which had no consistency.

Playing on the offensive line at CMU comes with certain expectations; CMU has a grand tradition of graduating linemen to the NFL, and is typically one of the better units in the MAC as a result.

A bit of a regression was expected in 2022 after Luke Goedeke and Bernhard Raimann both graduated into the NFL via the Draft, but the sheer rate of regression was startling. CMU went from a Top 25 offensive unit in every phase to tied for 86th in scoring and 84th in total yards, with one of the country’s worst sack rates (7.1 percent, good for 80th) to boot.

CMU’s performance was especially disheartening considering the team proffered the same starting five over 11 of 12 contests (Tyden Ferris was injured for the Toledo game, with Cole Johnson picking up the start at right guard.)

The offseason brought a lot of change to the offensive line room. Out goes William Vlachos after just one season, and in comes the combination of Tavita Thompson and Brandon Torrey, who will be tasked with injecting some pride back in the room after a season filled with adversity.

CMU suffers two major losses in the interior which they’ll have to take care of in fall camps, with Tyden Ferris transferring to Georgia State and longtime captain Jamezz Kimbrough graduating after six years of service in Maroon and Gold. The loss of Kimbrough means the loss of the most experienced lineman in the room, as he takes 43 starts (31 consecutive) from his true freshman year onwards with him.

Losing Ferris is also less-than-ideal, as he was a starter in every season he was eligible to play at the right guard position.

So just what is left for CMU to work with?

West Virginia native Deiyantei Powell-Woods is likely the highlight player in the starting five at the left guard position. One of Jim McElwain’s first recruits upon his arrival in Mt. Pleasant, Powell-Woods has had a role in the offense since 2019, whether as a rotation piece or as a starter. Powell-Woods has 26 starts to his name, starting in every season since 2020. His 2022 efforts was one of the lone bright spots for the CMU offense, as he gathered third-team all-MAC honors for his excellent run blocking play.

Two other starters return to the fold in the two tackles, with Davis Heinzen on the left side and Brayden Swartout on the right side. Taking over for Reimann and Goedeke respectively last season was a tall task, and it was evident, as the two underclassmen were consistently beaten by more talented edge rushers.

The hope for the two tackles this season is a significant improvement in technique. They certainly have the potential, as Heinzen (six-foot-five, 289 lbs.) and Swartout (six-foot-seven, 296 lbs.) bring uncommon size to the fold. One positive for them was their ability to pass block; CMU as a unit gave up sacks on just 7.3 percent of passing downs, good for 54th in the NCAA. If they can improve on that number, it will be a great boon to a pair of inexperienced QBs.

Behind those two are a lot of unproven commodities. Three rising sophomores were listed as true freshmen backups in 2022 after all earning three-star ratings as prospects, as Bruno Guberinich backed up Swartout at right tackle, while Alex Heineger and Martin Koivisto both rotated duties at left tackle.

Heineger left in the offseason to play closer to home at Buffalo, leaving Gubernich and Koivisto the favorites to re-claim backup roles. Neither played a major role in 2022, so as to keep their redshirts, and should be considered project players for now. That said, if either starter goes down, they’ll likely be the first in line.

The battle for the vacant interior spots at right guard and center is wide open. Ferris was Kimbrough’s backup at center, and Cole Johnson graduated this offseason after serving as Powell-Woods at left guard, leaving it a true free-for-all.

CMU did bring in at least one transfer portal product on the offensive line in Southeastern Louisiana center Dominic Serapiglia III, which is a decided departure from their usual operating procedure in the OL room.

Serapiglia, who stands at six-foot-three, 315 lbs., was a four-year veteran for the Lions, starting all 12 games in 2022 while also serving as the team’s long snapper. He earned second-team all-Southland Conference honors in a season where SELA made the FCS Playoffs, which immediately makes him a favorite for a starting role at the position.

Redshirt sophomore Keegan Smith will also likely get consideration at the position, standing at six-foot-three, 300 lbs. Smith has been outside-looking-in at all three interior spots since his arrival, but projects best at center since McElwain tends to want taller players at the guard spots.

Redshirt junior Cade Klimczak, who stands at six-foot-one, 285 lbs., could also garner a look at center, but is likely more in play for the right guard position since he has previously recorded a start at left guard (vs. Washington State, 2021.)

Junior Vashon Bailey has played in all 25 games he has been able to after the 2020 COVID season as a backup interior lineman and special teams player. The six-foot-seven, 315 lb. Bailey has been the listed replacement at either guard spot since 2021 due to his size, He’ll be a contender for the starting right guard spot, and his size could even put him in the discussion to cross-train at tackle if necessary.

There’s going to be a lot of work the line will have to put in if they want to improve from last year’s pedestrian numbers.

The Chippewas were 116th in the country in average line yards in 2022, per Football Outsiders, putting them amongst the worst OL units in the country at producing yardage per play. This could be linked to their inability to generate power; CMU was ineffective on third and fourth downs on the ground, successfully converting on just 53 percent of attempts (123rd in the NCAA.)

With a QB battle between two relatively inexperienced options and a running back stable filled with potential all-MAC options, it will be incumbent upon the line to improve quickly for CMU to have any success moving forward.

Current OL coaches Tavita Thompson and Brandon Torrey have had past success at coaching offensive line at prior stops, and also have playing experience at the position in both the collegiate and pro levels. Former OL coach Mike Cummings (who graduated Eric Fisher, Raimann and Goedeke in his two tenures at CMU) was certainly missed in 2022 after a late departure, but if Thompson and Torrey can get the OL out of the basement and turn them into at least an average unit, there could be a lot of promise here given the sheer amount of youth in the room.

This is the third in a series of CMU football previews, with our next piece addressing the front seven (defensive line and linebackers.) Please look forward to that! If you missed Part 1, you can read that here. Part 2 can be read here.

CMU’s season kicks off Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. Eastern time in East Lansing, Michigan, where they are set to play the Michigan State Spartans.