Zeitler: Plenty of soul-searching to do at cornerback position
I know you’ve heard a lot about how poorly the Central Michigan football team played against the Wisconsin Badgers. I really, really don’t want to add to the negativity. The horse is already dead.
But it was bad. So bad.
In the Chippewas' defeat at the hands of the No. 17 Badgers, CMU had 58 total yards while allowing a whopping 599. The Chippewas gave up literally ten times more yards than they gained. I don’t think I even need to stress how lopsided the game was.
The Badgers are known for their powerful running game, especially with Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor leading the charge. Taylor ran for 102 yards and three touchdowns against CMU, but if you had told me that before the game, I would’ve been impressed he had barely broken the century mark.
As a team, Wisconsin ran for 199 yards. I can live with that number.
What doesn’t work is the 400 yards allowed in the passing game.
Jack Coan is a good quarterback. Not great. As far as Big Ten signal-callers go, I wouldn’t even list him as above average at this point in his career. So how did the man go 26-of-33 for 363 yards and three touchdowns without breaking a sweat?
Well, for one, the young Wisconsin front line gave Coan a clean pocket on virtually every pass attempt. I have to give credit to their linemen to a degree, but Coan’s release time was too quick to even give the Chippewas’ defense a chance to get a finger on him on all but a pair of throws.
No, the reason Coan looked like a superstar against CMU was because there were at least two receivers open by several steps each time he dropped back and went through his reads. Honestly, I think the hardest decisions Coan made all day had to do with him choosing which uncovered receiver to throw to.
"They know who they want to be and how they want to do it," said first-year coach Jim McElwain. "They stick to what their plan is, and that's probably why they are successful. They've got some good players, sneaky speed. Sometimes the knock against the Big Ten is the speed piece, but they've got guys that can run."
Some of that can be contributed to miscommunication, but most of it was simply weak coverage, specifically by the cornerbacks.
I played cornerback in high school. It’s not like I got any college looks worth seriously considering, but I have a good understanding of the responsibilities that come with the position.
With that said, I know a good cornerback when I see one, and to be quite blunt, I haven’t seen a solid cornerback out there on steady basis for the Chippewas in the past two games.
In the matchup against the Badgers, sophomores Brandon Brown and Norman Anderson got the lion’s share of the first-string reps.
Brown gave up inside leverage on several occasions, allowing Wisconsin wideout Danny Davis to cross his face and haul in multiple catches for double-digit gains on post routes. Despite my criticism, I respected Brown for his ability to move on to the next play without griping to everyone who would listen.
That’s more than I can say of Anderson.
The corner was beat down the sideline for a long touchdown pass that fell neatly into the hands of Badger wideout Quintez Cephus. Anderson trailed the catch by at least two yards – a country mile apart in terms of being able to defend a well-thrown ball.
As soon as Cephus secured the ball on each catch, Anderson could immediately be seen throwing his arms up and gesturing wildly, trying to say that there was offensive pass interference.
Forget about griping to everyone willing to listen; Anderson seemingly wanted the whole stadium to know that he wasn’t to blame for giving up a vertical route for a score. Cephus' second touchdown came after he left cornerback Rollian Sturkey in the dust.
"It was a learning experience for our guys," McElwain said. "I know they're disappointed in how they performed, but that OK. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there, and you learn a lot from failure.
"We're going to do that and be a better team next week."
To be a consistently successful cornerback, you have to expect the world of yourself and believe beyond a doubt that you’re going to lock down your assignment on every play. So far, I haven’t seen a corner in the Chippewa ranks step up and refuse to lose to the person he’s covering.
True freshman Kyron McKinnie-Harper got more significant minutes in CMU’s season opener against Albany, but he's so young and needs to develop in many areas before it's possible to assess him. Right now, there are clear growing pains – like most Division I players with his experience level.
I haven’t seen a whole lot of in-game reps from sophomore Darius Bracy or junior Dishon McNary, but if they’ve been overlooked thus far in favor of the aforementioned players, I can hypothesize there’s a reason for that. It's also been shown on the depth chart, as younger players like Anderson and McKinnie-Harper have moved past them. There's a reason for that, too.
Anderson and McKinnie-Harper could become a decent 1-2 punch at cornerback but getting there takes time. There's a lot of work to do.
"We've got guys that deserve to play, and we're going to play them," McElwain said. "That's just the way it's going to be."
The state of CMU’s cornerback unit is a far cry from the reliability that Sean Bunting and Xavier Crawford brought to the defense last season. Seeing as both former corners are now on NFL rosters, the shoes are awfully big to fill, but at this point, CMU doesn’t need professional-caliber cornerbacks yet, just players that can guard their assignment well.
I understand that the crew of cornerbacks is uncommonly young and unexperienced with the collegiate level of wide receiver play. However, if the Chippewas plan on winning games this season, the group is going to have to mature quickly.
That starts with self-accountability, demanding nothing short of the very best effort possible to lock down the assignment.
To tell the truth, I really, really don’t like being so negative about the corners, because I know from experience that it’s nothing close to as simple as it looks. But the mentality in the cornerback room has to change, and it’s entirely up to that group to decide who will rise to the challenge.