How Jim McElwain, new coaching staff is changing the football program
Last season was one to forget for the Central Michigan football team.
Going 1-11 overall with no Mid-American Conference or Football Bowl Subdivision wins and former coach John Bonamego's firing to cap off the 2018 disaster of a campaign was unpredictable.
The Chippewas were coming off a season in 2017 which they won five of their final six games. They went 8-5 overall with wins over Eastern and Western Michigan before losing 34-17 to Wyoming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
At that time, the worst season in program history wasn't exactly in sight. Then, it happened.
Fast forward to April 9, 2019.
Steve Eipper took questions from reporters for the first time since CMU's forgettable season came to brutal halt with an eighth consecutive loss, 51-13 at Toledo. In the game, the Chippewas and Rockets cleared benches and fought.
The senior offensive lineman was the first to say it was tough to take in this offseason.
"I mean, obviously the end of last year wasn't the way we wanted to go out," Eipper said. "We thought we were going to be a little bit better than that. Watching all of our seniors, they were our friends, especially my friends for four years and that's the way they had to go out. It was tough.
"But now seeing all this new energy that has come in, right now I feel like we are in a really good spot."
The energy being new isn't an exaggeration by any means. In fact, it's coming from nearly an entirely new coaching staff.
Athletic Director Michael Alford hired new coach Jim McElwain in early December. By the middle of February, he had a brand new coaching staff outside of tight ends coach Tavita Thompson.
That alone makes the energy new. Defensive coordinator Robb Akey, however, was born with it, and the only way he knows how to coach is enthusiastically.
"With a coaching style you gotta be you, and this is who I am," Akey said. "I talk to my players about it all the time, excellence isn't just going to happen. It's a choice that you make every day. If you don't approach the world with energy, the worlds attacking you.
"I'd rather attack somebody than get attacked."
The trending words going through the CMU coaching staff has been that all of the players — returning or incoming — have a "clean slate." Essentially, this means they get the chance to compete with everyone and earn their spot.
It also gives the sense of a fresh era in Chippewa football.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Charlie Frye has arguably the cleanest slate of any position coach. Senior quarterback Tommy Lazzaro returns from a season ago with only seven games of on-field experience at the Division I level. Outside of him, Frye has two transfers in Quinten Dormady and David Moore. He also has redshirt sophomore Austin Hergott and redshirt freshman George Pearson, who both got action under center in 2018. The newcomer at quarterback is Daniel Richardson, a standout from Miami Carol City High School.
Frye said each quarterback has done good things through spring practice. While that competition will unfold over time according to Frye, he's trying to look at the entire offense the same way — players play who put in the most work.
"We will always be personal driven and do what our players do best," Frye said. "We've got some really good running backs who can make plays outside and I think our quarterbacks are doing a really good job of trying to keep the defense off balance.
"We're going to do whatever the team does best."
Frye said the university has done a great job of making the new coaches feel welcome, and it has made all of their transitions easier.
"The resources here, the welcome from the academics, everything has been impressive," Frye said. "The things that we are doing in the morning during winter conditioning where we had the kids over at breakfast, the dining hall staff had everything rocking and rolling. The strength staff did a good job of getting everyone through workouts and ready for academics.
"It's about truly developing a student-athlete here."
This is CMU football now. What leadership was here during a historically difficult season in 2018 has been removed. There are new faces and energy moving through the Indoor Athletic Complex this April.
So much so that senior defensive back Da'Quaun Jamison spoke for the team when saying they have all bought in to McElwain's system.
The reason behind it — the staff works in a "brotherly" fashion, one he and the team believe in.
"I see a bond within the coaches everyday," Jamison said. "Our staff is very competitive and they are very brotherly with each other, it's a great atmosphere."