CMU football: Three storylines to watch out for in spring season
After spending months wondering about the fate of fall football in the Mid-American Conference, the news of the season’s cancellation broke the morning of Aug. 8.
Emotions poured out all over social media: Praise for making the safe decision, anger for taking away a fall season for student-athletes who were willing to sacrifice anything to play.
With no football in the MAC this fall, the surrounding storylines will have to wait to be played out until the spring. There’s plenty of uncertainty as to what a spring season will look like, however, all parties involved hope to have some sort of competition that would allow these student-athletes to do what they came to school to do.
Perhaps Central Michigan is affected in a more unique fashion than any other program. There are plenty of storylines, both positive and negative, that coach Jim McElwain and his program will have to navigate.
Here are three storylines surrounding Central Michigan’s football program as it prepares for a potential spring season:
David Moore’s return and the impact on the quarterbacks
Nobody benefits more by the season’s postponement than Moore, a senior-to-be from Alpharetta, Georgia. After being handed a year-long suspension following a positive test for a banned substance, Moore was scheduled to miss the first five games of the Chippewas’ 2020 season.
With the schedule pushed to early 2021, Moore has been given a clean slate. In turn, he gives the Chippewas a solid, proven option to lead at the quarterback position.
Had the season started in the fall, the Chippewas would’ve selected either redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson, Sam Houston State graduate transfer Ty Brock or true freshman Tyler Pape to start under center. None of the three options have started a game in the Football Bowl Subdivision and two just entered the program, giving the team little experience at arguably the most important position.
With Moore eligible to return, the team has the necessary experience to compete at a high level. In his five games last year, four of which being starts, Moore showed flashes of his skillset. With a full season, and possibly more if the NCAA follows through on allowing fall student-athletes an extra year of eligibility, he can boost not only the program, but his professional prospects, as well.
His return also gives the underclassmen — Richardson, Pape and possibly an early enrollee from the 2021 class — more time to fine-tune mechanics and develop as they await their chance.
With Moore out, Richardson presumably held the leg up in the position battle. However, as Moore returns, Richardson and Pape are now on a level playing field. Richardson holds the advantage in terms of experience, however, there’s talk about Pape’s abilities that may make him hard to ignore. There’s also the trio of transfers, Brock, John Keller and Tyler Shearer, who will compete to take the backup job, as well.
What will emerging stars Troy Brown, Kalil Pimpleton do for an encore?
In Brown and Pimpleton, the Chippewas are returning a pair of stars who were named First Team All-MAC in 2019 as sophomores. As juniors, the question becomes: What will they do for an encore?
Pimpleton led the conference in receptions and yards last year, his first with the Chippewas. With Moore returning at quarterback, the offense should be as open as ever and allow Pimpleton to continue to cut up coverages with crossing routes and post patterns.
Toward the end of last season, offensive coordinator Charlie Frye and company found plenty of creative ways to get Pimpleton involved, whether it was motioning him out of the backfield, throwing passes off of jet sweep looks or running combo routes with senior JaCorey Sullivan to break zone coverages. There’s been talk of even more creative ways to get the former high school quarterback involved in the offense with a "wildcat" package.
Brown flourished last season after moving down to outside linebacker from safety. Ranking second in the MAC and 20th nationally in solo tackles, Brown made defensive coordinator Robb Akey and McElwain look like geniuses for making the switch. His athleticism makes him an asset in pass coverage against faster running backs and his strength makes tackling look easy.
However, senior middle linebacker Michael Oliver is gone, leaving a void in the middle of the defense. There’s also the question of who plays at the other outside linebacker position, as George Douglas and Corey Gildersleeve split time at the spot after Andrew Ward suffered a career-ending injury.
All that aside, Brown has pro potential and a family to provide for. For him to realize his dream and play football at the highest level, this spring is important for him to show that last year’s breakout was the beginning of his climb, not the peak.
What role do the incoming freshmen play?
Of the 22 commits in CMU's class of 2020, only one, defensive lineman Cade Cote, enrolled early. McElwain mentioned in his inaugural spring press conference that Cote would miss the beginning of camp with the flu and its unclear just how much, or even if, Cote got to practice before spring ball was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Cote being the only early enrollee, the rest of the freshmen didn’t arrive until late July as a result of the pandemic, leaving them behind the curve. Then, shortly after the team began practices, the season was canceled. Some players remained on campus while others returned home.
So just how ready will the newcomers be for a spring season?
There are plenty who possess the necessary size, such as massive offensive guard Keegan Smith, or speed, like safety Donte Kent, to play right away. However, football at the college level is dynamic. It requires offensive linemen to be solid blockers with good footwork that is learned with time and receivers need to be more than just fast.
That said, Kent and Smith could be two of the most prepared to play right away. Smith is not only big, he’s also strong, and with three departed linemen, he’s a prime candidate to get reps. Kent could also see time on special teams, as his development is key with the majority of the Chippewa safeties being upperclassmen.
There are other candidates to play right away as well. Nahree Biggins is a receiver who the coaches like, Jordon Ingram is the top recruit in the class who adds depth at running back. An injury or two at linebacker may force Kyle Moretti, Jayden Cray or Lawaia Brown into action.
Additionally, the transfer of starting tight end Tony Poljan will likely increase playing time for the incoming duo of Mitchel Collier and Davis Heinzen.
Perhaps the freshmen best embody what this pandemic has been like for the entire program. There’s plenty of talent and potential, however, they’re at the mercy of those in control.