The Chippewas were starting to move out of the shadow of Dan LeFevour in 2012 when they worked their way back to a bowl game after a couple of 3-9 seasons. Some key personnel losses and a tough schedule looked to consign CMU back to the bottom of the MAC, but it turns out the season wasn’t as bad as many predicted. A 3-game winning streak pushed them to a 6-6 finish, although they failed to get a bowl invite, in part because of their lack of competitiveness with the better teams on the schedule. Some injury problems didn’t help, but they certainly weren’t devastating. Head coach Dan Enos received a contract extension, locking him until 2016. Now can he deliver his part of the bargain and get the Chips back to contending for MAC titles?
The offense took a couple of big hits in week 1 of the season, when quarterback Cody Kater and running back Zurlon Tipton went down with injury. Tipton was by far the bigger of the losses. After rushing for nearly 1500 yards in 2012, he was expected to carry the Chippewa offense while their new quarterback got comfortable. Still, Saylor Lavallii stepped in and carried the load, starting 8 games and gaining 807 yards and 5 TDs. Zipton came back to start the last 3 games, and finished with 398 yards and 8 scores, including 216 yards and 4 TDs in his final game. Kater had won the starting quarterback job in camp, but managed just 6 passes before his season ended. Redshirt freshman Cooper Rush took over from struggling backup Alex Niznak the following week, and wasn’t bad. He completed 56.7% of his passes for 2349 yards and 15 TDs, although he also threw 15 interceptions. Having Titus Davis to throw to makes any quarterback’s life easier. Last season, despite missing a game, Davis caught 61 passes for 1109 yards and 8 TDs, and had 4 100-yard games in his last 5. Andrew Flory and Courtney Williams had their moments, combining for 54 receptions, 628 yards and 3 more scores. The offensive line lost a couple of starters, left tackle Jake Olson and right guard Cody Pettit, to injury early in the season, and struggled most of the year. The unit allowed 31 sacks, and paved the way for just 133 yards rushing per game (3.9 YPC). They still boasted a second-team all-conference pick in left guard Andy Phillips.
Despite the struggles last season, the Chips offense showed some potential, and only lose Tipton and Olson (who only lasted 2 games) from last season. Lavallii is back to carry the load, and he’s a 213-pound bowling ball with nice speed. Also in the fold is Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore (50-261-2) and Anthony Garland (32-159-0), both of whom showed they could pitch in when needed. Rush is the likely starter at quarterback. He had some nice games, and could be the answer, assuming Kater or JUCO Ryan Lamb doesn’t take the job in camp. If so, this may be a mistake, as Rush has a year’s experience under his belt. Davis is back, and you can consider this a contract year, as NFL scouts will be watching. However, he needs another receiver to step up and take some of the attention off – perhaps redshirt freshman Corey Willis, a 3-star recruit, can make some noise here. The offensive line had its problems last season, but the hope is a year together can make it a strength in 2014. Pettit is back and will push for his starting job back. Also worth noting is the Chippewas have a fine bunch of young talent in reserve, and it wouldn’t do for anyone other than Phillips to sit on their laurels in camp.
Central Michigan’s defense certainly had to shoulder some of the blame for the team’s woes last season, and if they had played teams with a pulse instead of WMU, UMass and EMU to finish the season, their rankings would have been considerable lower. While they were decent at keeping the play in front of them, opponents were able to keep the chains moving. The run defense was the biggest concern, allowing 201 yards per game while the pass defense gave up 204 yards. Of course, teams felt no urge to run on the Chippewas, and any team with a decent quarterback had little trouble moving the ball through the air. A pass rush that netted just 21 sacks did nothing to help. Up front, nose tackle Leterrius Walton was a beast, making 34 tackles, with 9.5 in the backfield, but he provided little push on passing downs. Ends Jeremy Gainer and Louis Palmer combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, but just 4 sacks. Part-timer Blake Serpa led the defensive line with just 3 sacks. Linebacker Justin Cherocci led the team in sacks with 4, and also led in tackles with 121 (9.5 for loss). Shamari Benton came second with 111 tackles, and led the team with 10.5 for loss. The secondary had its problems, but only conceded 16 TDs compared to 14 interceptions in 2013. Safety Avery Cunningham made 76 tackles and broke up 4 passes, but only intercepted 1, although for a TD. Cornerbacks Jason Wilson and Brandon Greer combined for 10 PBUs and 5 interceptions.
Like the offense, the defense isn’t losing too many starters, with Gainer, Benton and Cunningham gone. Walton is back to tie up the middle, while Palmer and Sherpa could man both ends, but incoming JUCO Nathan Mitogo could have a say in that. Cherocci is back in the middle, but Benton will be tough to replace with little experience in reserve. Cody Lopez saw the most action last season, making 18 tackles, but consider outside linebacker to be a big question mark. Cunningham is a loss in the middle of the secondary but Kavon Frazier will help fill the void. Kevin King started the last 3 games in place of Stud Jarret Chapman and looked pretty good. Either could step in for Cunningham, while the other remains as the nickel.
Redshirt freshman kicker Ron Coluzzi had an inconsistent first year. He hit 12 of 17 field goals with a long of 40, but he had a couple of kicks blocked and suffered through a midseason slump where he hit just 1 of 4 field goals. Punter Richie Hogan did a decent job, grossing 43.9 yards per punt and dropping 17 inside the 20, with just 4 touchbacks. The coverage unit could have been better though, allowing 2 TD returns. The kick coverage, on the other hand, was excellent. Jerry Harris average a mediocre 21.5 yards on kick returns, while Davis averaged just 6.6 on punts.
Hogan and the kick coverage were the best parts of the special teams unit last season, and Hogan’s gone. Coluzzi should be okay, but he needs to improve his range. Brian Eavey will give him a push in camp. Cooper Mojsiejenko is coming in this year to replace Hogan. He has big shoes to fill, but he has good genes – his father Ralf was a Pro Bowl punter with the San Diego Chargers. Harris will need to be replaced at kick returner, but watch out for rookie defensive back Amari Coleman, who has the speed and agility to have an impact as a return man if nothing else.
Last season, the Chippewas had a pretty young team and managed to squeeze out 6 wins. This season, apart from a couple of personnel losses, this has the look of a solid unit, and could be Enos’ best team yet. Any predictions will be based on essentially the whole team building on last season. CMU needs to settle on a quarterback early, then add some playmakers. The defense needs to make a few stops and develop a pass rush. The main problem with the Chippewas is they don’t really stand out anywhere, but the potential is there. The MAC will be weakened by personnel losses, so if you’re confident in the team improving, feel free to pencil them in as dark horses.