Rebuilding the Chips: Jim McElwain makes 'fantastic progress' in spring camp, eager for 2019 season
Snow melts. Flowers bloom. Birds return to Michigan. There is a smell in the air that's indescribably beautiful.
These are indicators of spring.
But another is spring football. College teams across the nation are back to work – new faces, new plays, new season. Everyone is unblemished in the record book, and each program has a chance at glory.
It's been 134 days since the beginning of the Jim McElwain era at Central Michigan, and the first-year coach is in search of immediate success.
For the first time, fans were able to experience his reign as coach at open spring practice April 13 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Brick by brick, McElwain has worked to rebuild a program left by former coach John Bonamego's 1-11 season in 2018.
Pieces necessary to win went missing, the intensity was lost and embarrassment was at its highest.
With just one practice left in spring football camp, McElwain said he's seen fantastic progress made by the Chippewas, but there's much more work to be done.
"I thought we ended up having a pretty good spring," McElwain said. "The progress here has been fantastic. I'm excited about what these guys have invested in, but we've got a long way to go. I can't wait until we get them back for fall camp to get them ready to play for the season."
For reference, CMU was last of all Division I Football Bowl Subdivision programs in overall offense. If not for the defense, the Chippewas might have gone winless. McElwain is forced with the task of building an offense, especially after the departures of four defensive All-Mid-American Conference First Team members.
Joining CMU isn't the first time McElwain has attempted to rebuild a program from the ground up. Nicknamed "A Bold New Era" by the Colorado State athletic department, McElwain walked through the doors in 2012 following three-straight 3-9 seasons for the Rams under coach Steve Fairchild.
Colorado State, in its first game with McElwain at the helm, rallied from down 11 points against arch-rival Colorado for a 22-17 victory at Sports Authority Field on Sept. 1. The win made McElwain the first Rams' coach in history to take down the Buffaloes in his career debut.
McElwain's crew finished 4-8 that season. Just two years later, Colorado State went 10-3 – McElwain was named the 2014 Mountain West Coach of the Year.
The hope is that the exact same will happen to the Chippewas in Mount Pleasant.
Offense: Reliable quarterback must emerge
A season ago, Bonamego made the mistake of starting junior Tony Poljan, now a tight end, at quarterback to open the 2018 campaign. It didn't end well, as Poljan was benched within three games.
McElwain has a variety of options, one of which is returning senior Tommy Lazzaro. Others include Houston graduate transfer Quinten Dormady, junior NJCAA transfer David Moore, redshirt freshman George Pearson and true freshman Daniel Richardson.
Along with Poljan, former quarterback Austin Hergott also switched to tight end.
McElwain is in no rush to name a signal caller for the 2019 season. He enjoys the tight competition and expects the summer months of training to iron out which one is the right guy for the job.
"(Dormady) is looking good, so are the other guys," McElwain said. "It's fun to see him progress as far as learning kind of what we want to do, and it was good to see those guys move the team."
However, during the open spring practice, Dormady got the most reps at quarterback, followed by Lazzaro and Moore. Dormady is a rare double graduate transfer, playing for Houston, Tennessee and now CMU. He was the starting quarterback for the Volunteers, an SEC powerhouse team, in 2017 before an injury ended his season short.
Bringing experience, knowledge of the game, passing accuracy and leadership to the table, Dormady has the potential to be the much-needed answer at quarterback. Junior wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan gave the newcomer high praise following practice.
"He leads us, and he knows where everybody needs to be," Sullivan said of Dormady. "If I don't know something, he'll be the one to tell me where to be and what route to run. He has a strong arm, pretty accurate."
The Chippewas plan to run a speedy personnel-driven offense, one that includes get-it-to players at each skill position. McElwain already has slot wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton, a Virginia Tech transfer, nabbed as a to-be star in 2019. Two other top receivers are Sullivan and senior Brandon Childress.
"(Pimpleton's) an electric player but not only that, he's an unbelievable teammate," McElwain said. "He's a guy that invests in it and really does a great job. He's the first guy in all of the time. If you could have 110 of him, you'd have a great football team."
The tight end position battle features Poljan, sophomore Bernhard Raimann and sophomore Keegan Cossou. Poljan recently made the jump from quarterback to tight end, but he has excelled in his new spot for the Chippewas.
McElwain's offensive line, coached by Mike Cummings, has a number of newcomers that includes offensive tackles Ja'Raymond Hall, Luke Goedeke and Jake Dominguez.
The returning linemen are junior Derek Smith, sophomore Nick Follmer, sophomore Erik Ditzhazy, redshirt freshman Shawn Wiley, senior center Steve Eipper, sophomore Jamezz Kimbrough and junior Jeff Strome.
"We're going to be a much more efficient offense this year," Eipper said. "Last year, we kind of dropped off from the previous year. This year, I have a good feeling that we're going to bounce back."
A season ago, there wasn't much room for star senior running back Jonathan Ward to break loose. It also didn't help that a lingering injury limited him to nine games. He only scored one touchdown while rushing for 212 yards on 76 carries.
Back in 2017, the story was much different. The 6-foot, 220-pound back posted 1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns. Ward wants to get back to his old days, and McElwain said he's well on track.
"He's a pretty good football player," McElwain said. "I'm glad he's a Chippewa."
The running back that spent time behind Ward was sophomore Kobe Lewis. The Chippewas also have rushing options in senior Romello Ross and junior Kumehnnu Gwilly.
The offense, as a whole, carries a greater weight than in past seasons due to the loss of stardom on defense – cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Xavier Crawford to the 2019 NFL Draft, defensive end Mike Danna as a transfer to Michigan and Malik Fountain, Alex Briones and Trevor Apsey to graduation.
Defense: Time to fill big shoes
Since Bunting, Crawford, Danna, Fountain, Briones and Apsey are out the door, many positions are open to take.
The linemen that spent the most time on the gridiron Saturday were senior defensive end Sean Adesanya, redshirt freshman defensive tackle LaQuan Johnson, senior defensive tackle D'Andre Dill and sophomore defensive end Amir Siddiq.
Other options up front include junior defensive end Leon Page, redshirt freshman defensive end NeVen Simington, junior defensive tackle Robi Stuart and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jonathan Berghorst.
Defensive coordinator Robb Akey raved about the talents of Johnson, who recorded 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and one sack in four 2018-season games.
"I'm really excited about (Johnson's) future," Akey said. "He's got size, good quickness, and I think he's a great kid. It means a lot to him because he's working at it.
"I told him, 'I'm going to buy some stock in your future, big boy.'"
However, the expected standouts at linebacker and defensive back are unknown as two starting linebackers and two starting cornerbacks are no longer in town.
But each position group became a little more clear throughout open practice.
Michael Oliver, the lone senior linebacker, played alongside sophomores George Douglas and Andrew Ward on what seemed like the first team defense. Oliver said his crew is still learning to match the production of Fountain and Briones.
For the defensive backs, senior Da'Quaun Jamison and sophomore Devonni Reed played with the first team at safety. The two cornerbacks with the apparent starting group were sophomores Brandon Brown and Darius Bracy.
“Bracy is the more physical one, so you gotta use your body against him,” Sullivan, a wide receiver, said. “Brown, he’s faster, so whatever you do, you gotta do it as fast as you can just to get rid of him.”
McElwain noted that the safeties, which include Jamison and Reed, have evolved into defensive leaders. In his fifth and final year as a Chippewa, Jamison agreed with his new coach.
“We’re being very detailed, very coachable guys and sticking to that,” Jamison said. "Everybody's competing every day and the depth chart is changing every day."
If what became clear at open practice holds true, Jamison, Reed, Brown and Bracy should be the starting defensive backs heading into the season opener in late August.
Behind the four are a number of options that contain junior safety Alonzo McCoy, sophomore safety Rollin Sturkey, junior cornerback Gage Kreski and sophomore NJCAA transfer cornerback Dishon McNary.
As a Belleville High School product, Reed took a redshirt in 2017 and got on the field for the Chippewas in 2018. He went off for 96 tackles, three passes defended, one fumble recovery and one defensive touchdown.
During the scrimmage portion of practice, the Chippewa defense made three-straight stops. The offense was unable to move the ball, regardless of which quarterback was in.
The defense was outplaying the offense for the first time, and their leader, Akey, fired them up for it.
"I got one request now, dammit,” Akey said. “Back-to-back-to-back three-and-outs: Why do you just walk off the field? How come I don’t see a little swagger?”
McElwain is here to write a new chapter in the program's book.
Putting pen to paper has already begun.