CMU has a reputation for a damn-it-all defensive approach which starts up front, as defensive coordinator Robb Akey emphasizes aggressive, downhill play to maintain gap integrity and keep pressure up on the offense.
Despite losing both Troy Hariston III (graduation) and Amir Siddiq (transfer to Charlotte), the defensive line once again shone in 2022 (as we’ll get to later), showing itself to be one of the most efficient in the country at getting stops at the line of scrimmage.
The linebacking corps in particular was a work-in-progress in 2022, to the point where the defense opted to play with five primary defensive backs for most of the season. Of 12 contests, CMU opted to start in 4-2-5 personnel eight times, with De’Javion Stephney (three starts), Javorion Sims (two starts) and Jayden Davis (three starts) rotating at that wild card defensive spot.
The Chippewas will need good collective play from their front seven if they hope to reverse the fortunes from last season. CMU was especially atrocious at causing turnovers and limited in collecting sacks, which is what Akey focuses the defensive philosophy around. This contributed to an astounding -18 margin, one of the worst marks in the NCAA.
A blend of veteran and fresh faces will dot the line in 2023 for CMU in what will likely be seen as a bit of a vengeance tour after a disappointing effort in 2022.
- Thomas Incoom (graduation; UDFA with Denver Broncos)
- LaQuan Johnson (transfer)
- John Wesley Whiteside (graduation)
- Joshua Washington (transfer to New Mexico Military Institute [JUCO])
- Tyrece Woods Jr. (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Isaiah Rodgers (transfer to Monmouth [FCS])
- Fred Stokes (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Jayden Evans (positional change)
- Keshawn Hayden (incoming recruit)
- Brent Hoppe (incoming recruit)
- Cade Riddle (incoming recruit)
- Brady Neu (incoming recruit)
- Jeremiah Major (JUCO transfer from Independence [KS] CC)
- Maurice White
- Jacques Bristol
- Malik Denkins
- Kade Kostus
- Robi Stuart
- Will Leggon
- Oumar Conde
- Jonah Pace
- Jason Williams
- Michael Heldman
- Quindario Lee
The biggest loss amongst the down linemen is almost certainly Thomas Incoom, who graduated last season after one of the more productive seasons ever seen in Mt. Pleasant. Incoom had 56 tackles, including 18.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries (with one returned for a touchdown) in 2022, making up nearly a third of CMU’s total sacks on his own.
Replacing that level of production is going to be very hard to accomplish, as no other Chippewa had more than 3.5 sacks in the most recent campaign. (That player was LaQuan Johnson, who hit the transfer portal this offseason.)
Redshirt sophomore Michael Heldman is the likely successor, having taken over spot opposite Incoom for the last 11 games of the season, finishing with 19 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks on the year. Heldman, who stands at six-foot-four, 260 lbs., is about the size of Incoom, and the staff projects him as an immediate contributor.
The interior is also largely decided, with both Jacques Bristol and Robi Stuart returning to their respective spots as starters.
The six-foot-one, 295 lb. Bristol has been a contributor inside since his true freshman season, with 31 starts in 45 appearances, with 100 career tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss and nine sacks over four seasons. Bristol was the team’s 10th best tackler in 2022 from the nose spot, with 34 tackles overall.
Similarly, Robi Stuart has oodles of game experience, having appeared in all or parts of five seasons dating back to 2017. The six-foot-three, 300 lb. Saginaw native has played in 50 games, with 25 starts at the defensive tackle spot, and picked up 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack last season, tallying at least one stop in 11 of 12 contests.
There will be an open battle for a vacant end role and for rotational play at the tackle position.
Memphis transfer Maurice White is seen as a favorite to fill either of those roles, Standing at six-foot-five, 275 lbs., he has NFL-ready size on the line and could offer a dynamic CMU hasn’t seen in some time. Most of CMU’s success stories at the ends have been with undersized prospects, so it’ll be interesting to see what White could bring to the table at that position.
Other on-roster options to find rotation time along the line include Quindario Lee (15 tackles, five TFLs, 2.5 sacks) , Jason Williams (21 tackles, five TFLs, two sacks), Oumar Conde, Jonah Pace and Kade Kostas.
This was a line which Football Outsiders considered one of the best in the country at stopping the offense in 2022, scoring as a Top 10 unit in average line yards (second; 2.09), standard (eighth; 2.11) and passing (seventh; 2.15) down yards, and stuff rate (fifth; 25.1 percent), while also earning a Top 25 grade in opportunity rate (15th; 41.5 percent) and standandard down sack rate (22nd; 7.1 percent.)
Passing down sacks was where the Chips regressed, coming in 84th in the NCAA with a sack on just 7.4 percent of obvious passing downs, which allowed teams to convert for first downs through the air quite often.
They’ll have to regroup and get back to basics in order to be a more complete unit moving forward.
- Cole Riddle (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Jalen Hanford (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Corey Gildersleeve Jr. (transfer portal)
- Logan Guthrie (transfer portal)
- McKeegan Ferguson (incoming recruit)
- Anthony Lomakoski (incoming recruit)
- Jeremiah Alston-Jackson (incoming recruit)
- Nick Apsey
- Dakota Cochran
- Fernando Sanchez III
- Ke’Shon Parker
- Kyle Moretti
- Lawai’a Brown
- Justin Whiteside
- Jordan Kwiatkowski
Linebacker was a bit of a rebuild in 2022, as both their primary starters in 2021 transferred out to pursue other opportunities. Kyle Moretti came on late in that season, finishing seventh in tackles (47), eventually earning himself one of the two starting roles in 2022.
Moretti won third-team all-MAC honors after a 94-tackle effort which had 7.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks in addition. The true junior has cemented his place in the starting lineup in a short amount of time.
He’s paired alongside a similarly aggressive Justin Whiteside, who was third on the team in tackles last season (67) while also registering seven tackles-for-loss, an interception and a pass break-up.
This pair of linebackers return to their starting roles in 2023, offering some stability in the middle of the defense.
As mentioned before, CMU had to dip into their secondary to find a complimentary player in the box last season. One of the developments the staff would like to see is the emergence of a third linebacker who can be depended on more often— if only to keep things more flexible.
Dakota Cochran (24 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, sack, four pass break-ups, two blocked kicks) might be an emergent candidate to get more play time after an impressive redshirt freshman campaign in the rotation. Lawai’a Brown (12 tackles, pass break-up) is credited with a start vs. NIU last season and a primary back-up on the depth charts.
CMU has several linebackers who have proven to be good on special teams as well, with Fernando Sanchez III, Ke’Shon Parker and Nick Apsey all primarily getting snaps primarily on special teams. Apsey, a sixth-year senior, could get more looks in the rotation due to his experience; he had impressive efforts against a pair of Power Five teams in 2022.
This is the fourth in a series of CMU football previews, with our next piece addressing tight ends and the offensive line. Please look forward to that! If you missed any of the previous parts, you can catch up on our preseason storystream here.
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.