One of the lone bright spots for the Chippewas in an otherwise tough 2022 season was the sheer talent on display in the defensive backfield.
Despite the front seven’s limited penetration and a more general lack of turnovers, the CMU defense was essentially a no-fly zone for opposing offenses, with 55 pass break-ups as a unit. This offseason, they only lose 10 of those, marking CMU once again as a dangerous man-to-man defense.
It’s some of the best talent on the corners and back end we’ve seen in Mt. Pleasant since 2019 (which was a cursed year as a team but featured many individual talents who would have success in the pros,) giving fans and the staff a lot of optimism for how next season could look.
A lot of CMU’s early mojo is going to have to come from the secondary, and they’re certainly up for the task.
Let’s take a deeper look at the room below:
- Ronald Kent Jr. (graduation)
- Rollian Sturkey (transfer portal)
- Mark-Allen Gay (incoming recruit)
- Jamari Allen (incoming recruit)
- Trey Liebhart (incoming recruit)
- Da’Raun McKinney (transfer from South Dakota [FCS])
- Donte Kent
- Lavario Wiley
- Jarvarious Sims
- Ed Conoran
- Elijah Rikard
- DeAnthony Becton
- Marcus Badgett
The cornerbacks were one of the steadiest units on CMU’s roster in 2022, which managed to navigate a youth movement while still being extremely effective once the team got their legs under them. Overall, CMU’s pass defense was fairly good, giving up about 221 yards per game (57th in the NCAA) thanks in part to a stingy second-half performance.
They’ll miss Ronald Kent Jr., who held down one of the outside corner spots and excelled in his single season in Maroon and Gold, with 56 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and 10 pass break-ups in his 12 appearances (nine starts.)
Ronald’s younger brother, however, will be the name to watch out for in the defensive backfield. If you haven’t heard of Donte Kent yet, you’ll want to get acquainted; the 2021 freshman All-American improved exponentially in 2022, winning first-team all-MAC honors as one of the league’s best cover corners. Kent had 51 tackles, a force fumble and 15 pass break-ups, with at least one swat in 8 of the 12 contests he played last season. His break-up mark was good for ninth in the country and second in the MAC, establishing him as a shutdown corner.
There will be some fighting for that spot opposite of Kent.
Jarvarius Sims, standing at six-foot, 180 lbs., was Ronald Kent’s listed backup for most of the season, and is likely penciled in to start the season there after a 28-tackle campaign in 2022. He had two starts at the defensive flex position last season against Ball State and Akron, starting alongside both Kents. He’ll have competition in the form of two players: Lavario Wiley and South Dakota transfer Da’Raun McKinney.
Wiley was the listed backup to Donte Kent for most of the 2022 season, and saw some action as a starter against FCS Bucknell. Wiley finished the year with eight tackles and two pass break-ups.
McKinney is the intriguing prospect to watch for here, as he joined the team during the summer after spending three seasons in South Dakota. McKinney, a River Rogue native, has a reputation as a hard hitter at five-foot-ten, 200 lbs., and finished in the Top 10 in tackles in 2021 and 2022 for the Coyotes. McKinney finished 2022 with 43 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and four pass break-ups in nine appearances, while leading the team in pass break-ups over eight games in 2021 (8.)
The 2021 season is particularly indicative of his potential; after coming back from a season-starting injury, McKinney still finished fifth on the team in total tackles (48) while leading in pass break-ups.
- Ormondell Dingle (transfer portal)
- Jonathan Tillman (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Ambrose Wilson (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Tayte Vanderleest (incoming recruit)
- Trey Jones III
- Da’Javion Stepney
- Caleb Spann
- Nahree Biggins
- Jayden Davis
- Kyle Krebs
- Danny MacLean
The good news for the back end of the secondary is none of the starters at the three positions depart. It’s crucial because CMU experimented with a lot of 4-2-5 in 2022 and it seemed to really work for the most part, eschewing the third linebacker for a third safety fairly often.
Trey Jones III is the leader in the safety room, finishing second on the team in total tackles (85), while tallying 6.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and three pass break-ups in 2022 from the strong position. Jones is an excellent run supporter, who has also shown chops when necessary in the passing game. The redshirt junior will be key to the defense’s success moving forward.
Starting alongside him at free will be the six-foot, 180 lb. De’Javion Stephney, another hard-hitting safety who notched three starts at the defensive flex spot early in the season before earning a permanent starting role for the last seven games. Stephney, who also saw time at running back, finished third on the team in pass break-ups (eight), and had 40 tackles.
The third safety battle will likely be fought between the two players who primarily held the honor last season, as both Jayden Davis and Caleb Spann return to the roster.
Davis, who started the season as the starter opposite Jones, found a role at the third safety spot towards the end of the season after Stephney overtook him, picking up 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble over 12 games (with seven starts).
Spann, a redshirt sophomore, will have a chance to push for the job due to his pass coverage prowess. He totaled 21 tackles and four pass break-ups over 12 games (with one start) as the primary backup at all three safety spots.
Kyle Krebs, Danny MacLean and Nahree Biggins will all likely line up for special teams opportunities, given the relative depth of the position. Biggins’ pedigree as a three-star prospect and his size (six-foot-one, 210 lbs.) would likely give him the edge in the case multiple starters go down.
This is the fourth in a series of CMU football previews, with our next piece addressing specialists. Please look forward to that! If you missed any other parts, please check out our preseason preview 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.