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COLUMN: Jim McElwain's approach is intense, but it'll likely pay off for Chippewas


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Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain watches his team practice Aug. 5 at the Bennett Track Grass Field during fall camp.

Jim McElwain isn't here to dance, listen to the top Hip-Hop songs, pointlessly run all over Kelly/Shorts Stadium or stick to someone else's pace.

Migos brings new school rap to life; Eminem delivers the homegrown hustle; the lyrics of the late Nipsey Hussle display community activism.

McElwain doesn't care. His only focus is on winning football games.

There's a philosophy to doing that, and it's been evident through watching fall camp practice in Mount Pleasant.

First things first

McElwain has made several moves since arriving on Central Michigan's campus in early December to take over as coach after John Bonamego was fired from the position.

In the latest series of those moves, McElwain has moved practice times during the season to afternoon hours, something that hasn't been done in quite some time. He's also decided to never hold practice at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, using the East Grass Field (for the first time in what feels like forever), Bennett Track Field and the Indoor Athletic Complex.

Again, where Bonamego used Kelly/Shorts, McElwain won't do it. He wants playing on the game field to become something special again.

"It’s an honor and privilege to play on that field, so that’s why," said senior linebacker Michael Oliver.

Moving practice time to the afternoon and keeping the stadium for Saturdays were just two of the ways McElwain has changed the system. He also opened the first five periods of certain practices for the media to attend. And, yes, that's another bonus that hasn't been given in over a decade.

Bonamego never allowed that even though many Power Five conference schools give some type of practice access to media.

McElwain wants things done his way or the highway, ensuring structure within the program. It's seemed to work thus far, especially during practice sessions.

Let's talk about practice

Just one season ago, with Bonamego as coach, CMU ended most practices with an 11-on-11 drill. Music blared the latest rap tracks and players danced on the field. Even though the losses piled up, the music and dancing remained.

That doesn't fly for McElwain.

There's no music and no dancing. Everything is run on discipline and communication. McElwain might've said it best during his introductory press conference eight months ago.

"They needed to learn how to sit up, they needed to learn how to focus, they need to learn how to communicate non-verbally," McElwain said when he was announced as coach. "And I think for them it was possibly a bit of an eye-opener."

Well, he couldn't have been more correct. The Chippewas truly did need those things, and McElwain knew it just one day after accepting the gig.

In 2018, CMU averaged 8.2 offensive penalties, the eight-worst mark of 129 Division I FBS teams, for 70.9 yards lost per game. The Chippewas had the third-worst passing rate (48.6%) and averaged 0.8 passing touchdowns (seventh-worst) and 0.7 rushing touchdowns (fifth-worst). Bonamego's offense also logged 2.3 turnovers per contest (fourth-worst). No college squad was more dreadful at picking up first downs.

Most 1-11 teams likely aren't as disciplined as they should be, and Bonamego knew that was the case for his team based on the remarks made in his post-game press conferences last season and two team brawls in the finale against Toledo.

"There are positives. It's hard to see them right now; you have to really look to see them and you have to want to see them, frankly," Bonamego said following his final game as coach. "We're 1-11. A lot of these games were very winnable; this one wasn't. We got run out of the stadium today. But there's three, four, five games this season that we were in and we absolutely could've won and should've won."

So, in turn, McElwain has brought an aspect of discipline to the practice field in preparation for the season. His style involves complete focus and no wasted time.

During Monday's practice, there weren't many opportunities for players to rest. Movement on the grass in pads was consistent, something much different from a season ago.

What's next

Speaking of that crummy offense, McElwain is doing everything he can to flip the switch. Once again, he's seemingly taking matters into his own hands.

Does he trust offensive coordinator Charlie Frye? Of course.

But McElwain is an offensive guru, especially at the quarterback and receiver positions. From watching practice for 30 minutes, it's clear he's fully invested in airing out the ball, putting big numbers on the scoreboard and filling the stands due to an invigorating playbook.

"With coach Mac and coach Frye out there, they do a nice job of getting the right guys in there and mixing up personnel so we have the right guys in there to make plays," said sophomore slot receiver Kalil Pimpleton.

McElwain's control of the offense was also exemplified well before fall camp, as he brought in transfers Quinten Dormady (quarterback), David Moore (quarterback), Oge Udeogu (offensive lineman) and Jake Dominguez (offensive lineman) to fill team needs.

The newfound intensity, structure and discipline displayed by the Chippewas through just a few fall practices already shows the future is bright under McElwain.

“He brings a different type of energy, a different type of level of competitiveness and a different type of level of professionalism," Oliver said. "We just have to compete at each level.”

How much does this help?

Immensely.

Central Michigan lost close games in 2018 to Northern Illinois (by 8), Michigan State (by 11), Buffalo (by 10), Ball State (by 1), Akron (by 7), Eastern Michigan (by 10) and Bowling Green (by 11). 

That goes to show how close Mid-American Conference teams are by comparison. The Chippewas could've just as easily picked up a handful of wins. Instead, the squad went 1-11 overall, 0-8 in the conference.

With some much-needed discipline, the course of last season could've gone differently.

McElwain is now faced with the chance to add a positive chapter CMU's book, and, in my opinion, he's already making progress.

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