A year removed from sharing the division title with NIU in 2021, CMU was expected to be in the mix in 2022 to try and build upon their 9-4 performance, which included a huge 6-2 conference record and a win over Washington State in the Sun Bowl as a COVID replacement.
It was not to be; a bevy of departures to the NFL combined with injuries and shallow depth at key positions, resulting in a lost season for the Chippewas.
Head coach Jim McElwain, brought in under the previous administration, enters his fifth season at the helm in Mt. Pleasant, with the entire roster now molded in his image and a new— if secretive— extension in his pocket. The 2023 season looks to once again be a wide-open race all around the conference; one or two key wins could be the difference between a division title and sitting out of a bowl game.
In that light, a 4-8 record in 2022 currently sits as a bit of an albatross around the necks of the program; McElwain made as much clear to Lindy’s Sports in an interview for their college football magazine, explaining the season “wasn’t good for fans,” “horrible” for the university and “embarrassing for our program.”
Ultimately, the 2022 campaign was a bit of a necessary reset. The entire 2020 recruting class was greyshirted due to COVID, which affected the team’s future recruiting cycles and resulted in a bit of a gap of necessary depth which came back to bite them— both in the 3-3 campaign that season and in 2022, when much of that expereinced leadership left.
So what’s new at CMU?
The most noticeable changes are in the coaching staff, which saw a lot of turnover and re-assignments during the offseason. There’s also some key personnel questions to address as well, with several key positions finding themselves with major question marks.
Let’s walk through them together:
Looking for upside in the receiver corps
The departures of two first-team all-MAC receivers in the 2022 offseason proved to be a lot more than CMU was ready for. Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan going took away well over half of CMU’s receiving yards in one fell swoop, and the replacements who were brought in to make up that gap (Ball State’s Jalen McGaughy and Maryland’s Carlos Carriere) couldn’t get to that level of production.
Combine that with an injury to the ever-dependable Dallas Dixon, who was CMU’s most experienced receiver and slot threat early on in the season, and the situation got grim quickly.
Carriere and tight end Joel Wilson (who was second-best in receiving stats in 2022) both departed for the pros, while Dixon has exhausted his eligibility and Finn Hogan transferred to Bowling Green. This means the receivers will completely turn over from last season.
CMU secured two receivers with upside in Stephan Bracey Jr. from Wisconsin and Thomas Pannunzio from Colorado State to try and compliment McGaughy and a fourth receiver.
Bracey, primarily a kick and punt returner for the Badgers, transfers closer to home (Grand Rapids) to try and make a name for himself as a receiver. Buried on a depth chart for a team who primarily ran the ball, Bracey has intriguing speed and spatial awareness which could make a difference for CMU’s receiving corps, as seen by this 91-yard kickoff return touchdown against Nebraska in 2021.
Pannunzio is, suffice to say, an intriguing name to bring into the fold. Pannunzio was a tweener at Colorado State, going back and forth between wide receiver and defensive back for the Rams. It’s easy to see why; his speed and acceleration make him a good fit at both positions. His ability to move with the ball in his hands is also worth noting, as seen in this 70-yard punt return touchdown vs. Toledo in 2021.
The common thread between these two is their size and experience; they’re both slightly undersized (Pannunzio is five-foot-nine, 170 lbs., while Bracey is five-foot-10, 185 lbs.) and both hail years of experience on the field, two things the receiver room sorely lacks at current. They should also make a difference on special teams, which was arguably one of CMU’s worst units last season (more on that later.)
CMU is clearly emphasizing top-end speed and making your own plays with their corps after a year of trying to work with tall possession receivers by necessity, which should give the Chips a different look in 2023 on offense.
Who steps up at the EDGE position?
The EDGE position for CMU has been a very fruitful one since Jim McElwain took over in 2019. Troy Hairston, Amir Siddiq and Thomas Incoom all found great success at the EDGE spot, with Hairston and Incoom both earning all-first team honors at the position. Hairston managed to make an NFL roster as a fullback, while Incoom will be fighting for a spot on the Broncos this season as a priority UDFA.
Given CMU’s damn-it-all pass rush approach, getting pressure from the edge positions is tantamount to continued success, which makes replacing Incoom’s production a major priority. Curiously, CMU did not make major moves at this position via transfer portal, opting to dance with the roster they brought into spring camps.
There will be a handful of candidates for the EDGE role this season, but the likeliest on-roster option is Michael Heldman. A rising redshirt sophomore, Heldman claimed a starting role opposite Incoom one game into the 2022 season and registered 19 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and forced a fumble in his first major action. At six-four, 246 lbs., he’s a lot taller than any of his predecessors, but exhibits the potential for growth with more experience.
Other than that, it’ll be a relatively young room. Kade Kostas, Jonah Pace, Malik Denkins and Oumar Conte could all get potential looks at the position as well, though they’ve all up to this point registered minimal stats and are all true or redshirt underclassmen.
A sea change of specialists
Make no bones about it: special teams were atrocious in 2022.
Marshall Meeder and Josh Rolston combined for under 50 percent kicking field goals, Rolston was called for several game-changing kickoff penalties and the return teams consistently fumbled the ball. The one bright spot, punter Luke Elzinga, transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason.
Meeder transferred out as well, presumably to look for a new home, leaving CMU wanting for both a placekicker and a punter. Rolston does return, but he has a very tenuous hold on any specialist job.
CMU was aggressive in seeking out replacements to steady their performance on the special teams unit, signing two receivers with excellent return backgrounds as mentioned earlier. They also went after experienced specialists, signing placekicker Tristian Mattson from Arkansas State and punter Jake Waldrop from Tarleton State via Utah State. Waldrop has a career average of 40.9 yards, with 18 punts of 50+ yards and 29 punts inside-the-20 over the last two seasons, with only 11 touchbacks.
It’s expected that Mattson and Rolston will battle for both the placekicker and kickoff specialist positions in fall camps, while Walrath is more or less penciled in due to his seniority and experience.
If CMU can be even an average special teams unit, it will go a long way towards helping the rest of the team get back on track by ensuring there’s less pressure on the offense and defense to pick up the slack.
A near complete re-shuffle of the coaching staff
Jim McElwain was especially busy this season in re-shuffling the Chippewa coaching staff after a disappointing 4-8 season in 2022, as only Keith Murphy (special teams/safeties) and Michael Zordich (cornerbacks) kept their original posts from the 2022 campaign, meaning a lot of new voices will certainly be heard in camps and practices this season.
All the changes can be read in brief below:
- Tavita Thompson moves from tight ends/pass game coordinator to offensive line/run game coordinator (replacing William Vlachos)
- Brandon Torrey hired to coach tight ends/offensive tackles (replacing Thompson)
- Ryan McNamara (former personnel asst.) replaces Tom Mason at linebackers coach
- Jesse Williams replaces Ian Scott at defensive line coach
- Jake Kostner added for quarterbacks coach (replacing Paul Petrino)
- Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino sheds QB duties, adds wide receiver duties (replacing Alvin Slaughter)
- Cornerbacks coach Michael Zordich adds assistant head coach duties (replacing Mike Cummings)
- Danny Motowski and Da’Quan Jamison all join as staff and/or graduate assistants
Thompson, in his sixth season at CMU, will finally coach his natural position for the first time after five seasons as primarily the tight ends coach. Thompson was a four-year contributor at tackle for Oregon State in the mid-2000s, playing in 18 games. He’ll be the third OL coach in three seasons, replacing William Vlachos, who departed for Western Kentucky in February. 2022 was a bleak year for the offensive line, which has usually been a strength for the Chippewas, as yards gained, points per game and sacks allowed all plummeted from the prior season. The hope is that Thompson’s background can help a young line firm up and get back to their 2021 level of performance.
Replacing Thompson is Brandon Torrey, a veteran offensive line and tight ends coach who made his name in the HBCU ranks at both Howard and Norfolk State. In four seasons between both programs, Torrey graduated 10 all-conference linemen and an FCS All-American, with his Spartans line clearing the way for a program-record rushing average and an NCAA FCS record points-per-game average. He’ll coach tackles and tight ends, a position he last coached in 2018 at Malone College.
McNamara helped CMU recruit the top-rated recruiting class in the MAC in 2021 as the team’s personnel director and now moves to an on-field role, taking over the linebackers from Tom Mason. He has over a decade of experience as a defensive assistant, mostly with defensive backs and linebackers at Mississippi State, Valdosta State and Florida. He;’s credited in the development of several former NFL players, including Kenny Moore, Kaiir Elam and Jonathan Banks.
Williams brings decades of experience dating back to the late 1980s with him as the new defensive line coach, replacing Ian Scott (who departed to become head coach at Gainsville [FL] HS, his alma mater.) Williams’ last stop was at Tulsa, where his teams consistently finished Top 50 in the country in run defense. Willliams is not a new name to the MAC; he was a former DL coach for Ohio from 2012-16, and was instrumental in the development of Tarell Basham and Casey Sayles.
There’s also a series of moves involving Paul Petrino’s secondary duties, as Petrino is set to transfer from QBs to receivers (directly replacing Alvin Slaughter.) To help make the move, CMU brought back Jake Kostner (who previously worked with the team in 2019 as an offensive graduate assistant) to teach QBs. He comes to Mt. Pleasant after a stellar campaign at Division II Limestone, where he served as offensive coordinator and QB coach under Mike Furrey. In his lone season, Limestone’s offense exploded, scoring 35.4 points per game (up 22 points per game from 2021) and earning a playoff appearance at 8-3.
Zordich earns a promotion after his secondary put up an excellent 2022 campaign, with Donte Kent earning all-MAC first-team honors. He’s now assistant head coach after the departure of Tom Mason.
Motowski and Jamison (pictured above) were both members of the MAC West champion roster in 2019 in McElwain’s first year, and will help as assistants on offense and defense respectively. One can reasonably interpret this as a move to remind the team of what they’re capable of becoming. Jamison arrives after a year as a special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach at Albany State, while this is Motowski’s first coaching gig after three seasons at CMU as a rotation lineman.
This is the first in a series of CMU football previews, with our next piece addressing offensive skill positions. Please look forward to that!
CMU’s season kicks off Friday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. Eastern time in East Lansing, Michigan, where they are set to play the Michigan State Spartans.