Hustle Belt: Okay. So we know that Cooper Rush was named the starter going into camp. How is he performing so far?
Nate J. Schneider: To be quite honest, it is impossible to know for sure since Central Michigan practices are closed to all media so the last I've really seen of Rush in action is back at the spring game. But judging from what Coach Enos has told me as well as Rush himself, he's grown by leaps and bounds since last year. The 11 games of action he saw in 2013 helped get his feet wet and he obviously showed flashes of brilliance at times.
I think the Chippewas are in good hands with Rush and he certainly has playmakers around him to ease his job somewhat. And it helps that Rush will be pushed all through camp by senior Cody Kater, who would like nothing more than to get his starting job back. If Rush falters, the coaching staff and CMU roster have full confidence in Kater to get the job done.
HB: CMU has quite a stable of rushers, all of whom are expecting some time, including last year's starter Saylor Lavallii and transfer Thomas Rawls. How is Coach Enos handling that situation?
NJS: Enos has always preferred having multiple running backs getting plenty of carries in a game. Even when Zurlon Tipton was enjoying his breakout season in 2012, Lavallii would spell him from time to time as would a couple other running backs. So with the situation now, I don't think Enos has any worries about hurting feelings as whoever deserves to get touches will get them.
I would expect Lavallii to start the opener and Rawls to be the number two guy, but don't count out Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore or Martez Walker factoring in as well. One running back who I am really high on is redshirt freshman Gary Jones, but he might be a victim of the numbers game at this point. Look for him to perhaps emerge in a year or two. Circling back to Lavallii and Rawls or whoever the top two guys might be, it is going to be players who deserve it and in this offense will probably rack up a lot of yards.
HB: What the heck is going on at wide receiver? Besides Titus Davis, there isn't a lot of proven commodities. Has camp provided any answers there?
NJS: The wide receiver position is in pretty good hands even if it doesn't look it on paper. Andrew Flory's absence obviously hurts and even if his suspension is eventually lifted, he could very well be deep in the doghouse. But watch out for three redshirt freshmen - Corey Willis, Eric Cooper and Mark Chapman - as they are all very athletic with good hands and all three are capable of starting at the slot receiver spot. I would have named Chapman first in that list, but he broke his collarbone during practice Aug. 5 and is out indefinitely. He is an electric receiver who might have even slid up to the No. 2 receiver role had he remained healthy. Once he is cleared to play again, look for him to emerge.
But Willis and Cooper are also big-time additions who will be ready to compete right away. Looking elsewhere, Courtney Williams is a veteran who had a disappointing year as a junior, but if he can hang onto the ball he has the ability and plenty of games under his belt to be a big factor. In addition, Anthony Rice should step forward and be more productive and Jesse Kroll is healthy again after an injury derailed much of his 2013 campaign. All of that in addition to arguably the best receiver in the MAC in Davis and I think CMU will be in good shape there.
HB: The defense is probably Central's strong suit. With depth at all positions, how do you think they will do this upcoming season?
NJS: It is all on them to get the job done against strong offenses because the pieces are in place all around. This is the third year in defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin's 4-2-5 defensive setup and while there have been some monster games against weaker MAC offenses, the numbers against the likes of Northern Illinois along with Ball State and Toledo these past two years haven't been pretty. But when you put it all together, the 2014 has a big defensive front led by 300-pound tackle Leterrius Walton and fellow tackle Jabari Dean who returns from injury.
There are capable defensive ends with Blake Serpa as well as Louis Palmer and Joe Ostman all emerging last year. One linebacker spot is solidified as Justin Cherocci enters his third year starting, while there is a whole slew of talented defensive backs that should allow the CMU coaching staff to find five or six capable bodies. The lone question mark is at the linebacker position opposite Cherocci, where senior Cody Lopez and Tim Hamilton are battling it out in camp. All in all, it should be a much stronger defense this season after showing signs a corner was being turned in the latter part of 2013. There is also the point to consider that NIU, Ball State and Toledo are all changing quarterbacks. If it isn't an improved unit, they only have themselves to blame.
HB: Okay, two parts. Who is the breakout player so far? Also, who is the most questionable?
NJS: This would have been a no-brainer with Chapman, but with him on the sidelines for a while I'll look at his counterpart in Willis. He was an electric quarterback as a junior at Holland High School before a knee injury kept him out his entire senior season. After using the redshirt season to acclimate himself to the life of a wide receiver, Willis is ready to roll this fall and figures to get plenty of action at slot receiver and on kickoff return. He is a versatile threat that Enos and company will fully utilize.
As for the most questionable, I'd have to point at either Lopez or Hamilton. Whoever earns the starting spot at linebacker has big shoes to fill in the graduated Shamari Benton. The frontrunner is probably Lopez who has seen the field plenty over the past two seasons, but it remains to be seen if he can be the type of tackling machine that Benton turned into.
HB: Any freshmen to look out for this season? How and who have the redshirts been utilized on?
NJS: Not too often you bring up a punter, but Central Michigan brought in Cooper Mojsiejenko from Bridgman High School and with a need at punter he likely will get the job right away. He has strong bloodlines as his father Ralf punted in the NFL for seven seasons. The punting at the CMU spring game prior to Mojsiejenko arriving on campus was abysmal, so the job should be his to lose. I would expect almost all of the freshman class to be redshirted as only one player (Ostman) in the 2013 class played right away, but if there is another candidate I'd have to go with Amari Coleman. A 5-foot-10 and 180-pound freshman out of New Lothrop, Coleman is a dynamic athlete who could be used on kickoffs and punts as well as at defensive back. He was also an explosive wide receiver in high school. If he is redshirted, it will be because of all the roster depth because he clearly can play at the Division I level.
HB: Finally, what is your prediction for the Chippewas this season?
NJS: Right now I'm going with 7-5 and 5-3 in the Mid-American Conference. The case can be made that this squad could be better than that in MAC play, but until it is proven on the field I'm not ready to give more credit than is deserved.