Central Michigan spring football: Struggling offensive line could rapidly improve
This is the fifth of a series of nine Central Michigan position group previews entering spring football practice, which begins March 19. Today's edition focuses on the offensive line. For more, check back with Central Michigan Life over the next week.
Quarterbacks – March 4
Running backs – March 4
Wide receivers – March 5
Tight ends – March 5
Offensive line – March 6
Defensive line – March 6
Linebackers – March 7
Defensive backs – March 7
Special teams – March 8
It's no secret the offensive line production at Central Michigan is an issue, and it's time for the rotation to step up.
Mike Danna, Sean Bunting, Xavier Crawford, Malik Fountain, Alex Briones, Nathan Brisson-Fast and Mitch Stanitzek are seven starters from CMU's defense that are no longer with the program. Danna transferred to Michigan, Bunting and Crawford left early for the NFL and the others graduated.
That core group, more often than not, was the only reason the Chippewas remained close against opponents in their recent 1-11 season.
Based on the statistics, It's quite obvious CMU's defensive is going to regress, which means the offense needs to improve – and it all starts on the offensive line.
Just a season ago, CMU's quarterbacks were sacked 39 times while star running back Jonathan Ward only posted one rushing score.
"There was a big need at offensive line," said coach Jim McElwain. "The guys here are good, but the numbers were out of balance. That's nothing to say about the previous staff. Sometimes, it just happens."
Left guard Shakir Carr, left tackle Clayton Walderzak, right tackle Alex Neering and center Joe Komel are out the door, but luckily for McElwain, five offensive linemen with starters experience remain on the roster.
Plus, there are three transfers now eligible to take the field. The trio should deliver an instant impact.
When Walderzak battled a knee injury for the first four games of 2018, junior Derek Smith filled in. When Walderzak returned, Smith spent a majority of his time at right tackle. Altogether, Smith started four games at left tackle and four games at right tackle.
Right now, it looks like Smith's job to lose heading into spring camp. Expect the tightest battle to be with sophomore Nick Follmer, who started five games last season at right tackle. Follmer, like Smith, has the ability to play either tackle position.
However, if Ja'Raymond Hall or Luke Goedeke, two transfers, are successful in spring and fall practice, don't count out McElwain giving one of them a shot to start at left tackle. Every position is wide open and every player has a clean slate, so McElwain and the new staff could have anything up their sleeve.
Of the transfers, Hall is more of a true left tackle. Expect him to compete for playing time there but also find work at right tackle. Since he has no experience at the college level, it's impossible to project him as a solidified starter for the 2019 season until spring camp rolls around.
With Carr's graduation, the left guard position is open for grabs. The front runner for the position has to be sophomore Erik Ditzhazy. He appeared in the final six games of the season, making his debut against Ball State on Oct. 13.
Ditzhazy has the most experience, but redshirt freshman Shawn Wiley could also find his way into the mix. For the first few weeks of the season, Wiley was listed as second on the depth chart behind Carr. Instead of wasting him, former coach John Bonamego decided to give him a redshirt.
As long as Wiley's projected skill holds true through the transition to McElwain, there's no reason why Chippewa fans won't see him come fall.
Besides right guard, the center position is the most solidified spot on the front line for the Chippewas. It's senior Steve Eipper's job, and he probably isn't going to lose the opportunity to take command of the offense.
Eipper has been reliable for CMU, making 10 starts at center in 2018 to push his total to 21 career starts. Due to his experience, Eipper shouldn't have a problem communicating with two of the potential starting quarterbacks – Quinten Dormady and Tommy Lazzaro.
Lazzaro is an old friend, making seven appearances at quarterback a year ago, while Dormady is a veteran quarterback with the ability to quickly learn the playbook. It also helps that Eipper rarely makes mistakes.
As for a possible backup to Eipper, expect redshirt freshman Tyden Ferris to spend time in the rotation.
Jamezz Kimbrough started all 12 games at right guard in 2018, and it's safe to say that isn't going to change under McElwain.
Kimbrough is coming off a knee injury, but he should be back to full health by the summer.
Behind Kimbrough could be Jeff Strome, who appeared in three games and started at center against Kansas on Sept. 8.
Goedeke is a traditional right tackle, while Hall is a left tackle, but don't count them out of starting on either side of the line. If McElwain elects to go with Goedeke at right tackle and Hall at left tackle, Smith and Follmer could easily transition to right or left tackle as well.
However, Hall and Goedeke could just rotate at right tackle. The options are endless since multiple players can play both tackle positions.
Hall and Godeke come from Michigan and Wisconsin-Stevens Point, respectively. Both are redshirt sophomores in 2019. Out of Oak Park High School in the 2017 class, Hall was rated No. 301 in the nation, No. 30 at offensive tackle and No. 8 in Michigan, per the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Where does Jake Dominguez fit?
Graduating from Foothill College (JUCO) in December 2018, Dominguez announced his transfer to play for the Chippewas on Jan. 24, and his papers were official on Feb. 6.
Dominguez, a junior, features above average footwork, solid hand placement and balance on the offensive line. In the 2018 season, he didn't allow a single sack.
He's slated as an offensive tackle for CMU, but he will have to work for a starting or backup position. For Dominguez, it wouldn't be far fetched to see him near the top of the rotation by the time the 2019 season starts. It all comes down to how much he impresses with a brand new unit.
CMU has five early options for right and left tackle – Smith, Follmer, Hall, Goedeke and Dominguez.
Most of CMU's offensive line lacks beef, meaning the group is quick off the line and controls solid technique, but the Chippewas largest lineman is 315-pound freshman Cameron Vaughn.
Along with Vaughn, the freshmen on the line includes Danny Motowski (6-foot-3, 295 pounds), Vashon Bailey (6-foot-7, 295 pounds) and Deiyantei Powell-Woods (6-foot-5, 285 pounds). While all four newcomers could be effective, expect Vaughn to see first playing time since he enrolled early and will be with the program throughout spring practice.
From Haines City Senior High School in Florida, Vaughn was a three-star prospect. He turned down offers from South Carolina and UCF to join the Chippewas.