Inside 10 spring practices: Jamezz Kimbrough embraces new role, RB Lew Nichols does 'fantastic' and more
For many football programs across the country, spring practice was over before it began due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But not at Central Michigan.
The Chippewas began spring practice Feb. 15 and were able to squeeze in 10 practices before players left campus March 7 for spring break. By March 12, the Mid-American Conference shut down winter and spring athletic competition, practices and in-person recruiting.
"We grew as a team," said second-year coach Jim McElwain. "Some of the players that we wanted to see, the young guys, to see their development and growth from a year ago was fantastic. I feel very fortunate we were able to get those practices in."
The 10 practices have provided McElwain and his coaching staff the luxury to review tendencies with players during WebEx seminars.
"We were looking forward to the next five, but everybody's in that boat," McElwain said. "We'll be ready when the time comes."
The 2020 season begins Sept. 5 against San Jose State at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
Here are the players and position groups that stood out:
The most intriguing name McElwain mentioned was junior offensive lineman Jamezz Kimbrough. Injuries held him from playing last season on an experienced offensive line that featured center Steve Eipper, right guard Oge Udeogu and left tackle Clay Walderzak.
After starting 12 games on the offensive line in 2018, the 6-foot-2, 270-pound guard spent practices in the weight room. As Eipper exhausted his eligibility, McElwain has called on Kimbrough to step into a new position.
He will be CMU's starting center.
"Handling his move to center, and having those 10 practices for that, he's so important," McElwain said. "I was really proud the way he embraced it and continues to learn as we do our virtual meetings. He's really stepped up as a leader. I'm proud of that."
While Kimbrough replaces Eipper, there's still a need for new starters in spots previously commanded by Udeogu and Walderzak.
When Udeogu sustained a broken arm in the regular season finale, true freshman Danny Motowski filled in at right guard for the MAC championship and New Mexico Bowl.
Expect Motowski, now a sophomore, to fill the void at right guard, as junior Luke Goedeke remains at right tackle and senior Derek Smith at left guard.
That leaves Walderzak's left tackle spot to be filled, and McElwain has plenty of options in sophomore Deiyantei Powell-Woods, redshirt sophomore Tyden Ferris, junior Erik Ditzhazy and junior Nick Follmer.
"Some of the young guys on the offensive line really took huge steps," McElwain said, alluding to Motowski, Powell-Woods, redshirt freshman Albert Jespersen and redshirt freshman Vashon Bailey. "I'm excited about that piece."
McElwain named redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson the starting quarterback moving forward and expects him to come out of his shell after completing 1-of-3 passes for 1 yard in a 2019 season where he didn't play significant minutes.
"I really thought Daniel did some good things," McElwain said. "As you go back and watch the drill work, the things we ask him to work on, he is. There's some really good learning from those 10 days of practice he's able to take from and move forward."
Quinten Dormady and Tommy Lazzaro have exhausted eligibility. Senior David Moore is suspended until October.
To help with Richardson's transition from fourth-string to starter, the Chippewas return their top three receivers – junior Kalil Pimpleton, senior JaCorey Sullivan and sophomore Tyrone Scott – along with senior tight end Tony Poljan.
If redshirt sophomore George Pearson isn't able to get healthy from his leg injury, Richardson's backup will be true freshman Tyler Pape.
Out of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, running back Lew Nichols turned down offers from Power Five schools to join CMU. As a true freshman last season, he played in four games to preserve his redshirt and rushed 19 times for 89 yards.
With Jonathan Ward having exhausted his eligibility, junior Kobe Lewis is expected to slide into the starting spot after working with Ward in a two-man backfield. That means Nichols will make a significant jump in carries as a redshirt freshman.
"Lew Nichols had a fantastic spring," McElwain said, "as well as Kobe, obviously."
McElwain seems to believe the Lewis-Nichols combination at running back could be similar to what Ward and Lewis provided in 2019, which was 2,675 total yards and 28 touchdowns.
Kumehnnu Gwilly, and the search for depth at linebacker
Senior running back Kumehnnu Gwilly was mentioned by fans as CMU's "victory cigar" when he was put into games last season, a sign that a win was almost complete. He ran the ball 24 times for 83 yards, just 3.5 yards per carry.
With his senior season looming, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound running back has shifted to linebacker.
"Kume did a fantastic job," McElwain said. "Don't take any of this as that guy is better than the next guy, but I think his adapting in those 10 practices really helped him learn to be a contributor at the linebacker positions."
And the Chippewas might just need Gwilly.
When McElwain came to CMU, all three starting linebackers – Malik Fountain, Alex Briones and Trevor Apsey – had just exhausted eligibility, leaving an experienced Michael Oliver and plenty of questions.
Oliver took on a leadership role as a senior last season and anchored the linebacker position, but he has since lost eligibility. The career-ending injury to Andrew Ward only further hurts the situation.
"The linebacker crew is a crew that when we got here didn't have a lot of reps," McElwain said. "We're back in the same spot."
Junior Troy Brown will be heavily relied after starting 13 of 14 games last season, making 91 tackles (75 solo), 16.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three interceptions and two pass breakups. Fellow junior George Douglass should slot in as second-in-command. After those players, the third and backup linebacker spots are up for grabs.
A couple of options include junior Chuck Jones, sophomore Nick Apsey and redshirt freshmen Cory Gildersleeve Jr., Justin Whiteside, Logan Guthrie and Ormondell Dingle, who switched from defensive back to linebacker at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds.
McElwain finished the season starting defensive ends LaQuan Johnson and Sean Adesanya along with tackles Mohamed Diallo and Robi Stuart.
Diallo came as a transfer from Texas A&M, gained immediate eligibility by Week 9 and made his first start in Week 11 against Ball State.
Of those four starters, Adesanya has exhausted eligibility. Playing a key role at nose tackle throughout his career, D'Andre Dill is also out of eligibility.
McElwain has the job of replacing one starter and top backup, along with providing depth across the line. The experience is aplenty, especially with both senior Troy Hairston and junior Amir Siddiq having multiple starts at defensive end under their belts.
Sophomore Jacques Bristol started six games at defensive tackle last season as a true freshman, so he shouldn't have a problem in whatever role he's called to take on.
"We held Robi for the most part (of spring practice) to get him healthy," McElwain said. "With that, it helped us get some more reps with guys on the end and inside."
And there's always junior Deron Irving-Bey, who was a four-star recruit but hasn't played since transferring to CMU from Michigan due to academic eligibility issues. He suited up for the New Mexico Bowl but did not play.
McElwain said the defensive line worked on the odd front formation throughout the 10 practices.
"We were able to get a lot more out of odd package, which we're moving a little more to going forward," McElwain said, "using some of the athletic abilities of some of those defensive ends to be able to rush, drop and bring some other pressures. That was really good for us."
The defensive back positions were spots McElwain didn't have figured out from the get-go last season. He struggled with the combination of Norman Anderson and Brandon Brown at cornerback, made tweaks and eventually struck gold with true freshman Kyron McKinnie-Harper and now-junior Darius Bracy.
When Bracy was injured later in the season, redshirt sophomore Montrae Braswell filled his void with ease.
Two players from last season's roster – juniors Dishon McNary and Brian Edwards – are now eligible. McNary sat out due to academics, while Edwards couldn't play due to NCAA rules after he transferred from Florida.
McNary played in the New Mexico Bowl and started alongside Braswell. Edwards could replace top safety Da'Quaun Jamison, who exhausted eligibility. Junior Devonni Reed will likely start at the opposite safety spot with senior Alonzo McCoy serving as a backup.
"Devonni, he's just solid, and it's been really good," McElwain said. "Moving those guys around to see who is going to be the nickel. We've been able to really study those 10 practices and seeing the develop of our guys has been really good."
Sophomore Willie Reid also got plenty of reps at safety and could be a factor in the 2020 season.
"I'm missing a bunch of guys that had a great 10-day practice," McElwain said. "I've been really proud of how hard our guys have been attacking what we do.
"When this lifts, we have to be ready to hit the ground running."