Chippewas looking to build depth, versatility by training players on both sides of ball

Junior defensive back Alonzo McCoy walks off the field on April 13 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Robb Akey has made plenty of observations since the Mid-American Conference announced its intentions to revive the 2020 football season. Central Michigan's defensive coordinator is pleased with the passion his defense is playing with and the strides the young players have made. 

He has also been impressed with the offensive guys with their strides defensively. 

As fall camp opened up for the Chippewas last week, coach Jim McElwain and his staff have implemented a "cross-training" period of practice. Meaning offensive players work on their defensive skills and defensive players work on their offensive skills. 

With contact tracing protocols in place, the Chippewas are forced to use what they have. One positive test could knock out an entire position group, leaving a team scrambling for answers. McElwain, Akey and the rest of the staff are preparing in case of emergency.

"In 2020, you never know what's gonna come about," Akey said. "A test, a broken helmet, whatever, can create a need for a guy out on the field. I think that's some good stuff that we've done." 

With the Chippewas training players on both sides of the ball due to limited roster numbers, Akey has seen many of CMU's offensive playmakers training with him during practice. When asked if there were potential contributors coming over from the offensive side, he wouldn't show his hand. 

"Yes," he answered, smirking. "I can't give away all my secrets." 

Most of the Chippewas have two-way experience from their high school playing days. Troy Brown, CMU's top returning linebacker, doubled as a receiver in high school while fellow linebacker Chuck Jones was a running back. On the flip side, offensive lineman Derek Smith was a defensive end at Kenowa Hills High School while Kobe Lewis juggled playing running back with starting at cornerback. 

Coming into his senior season, Smith has played 1,707 snaps on the offensive line. He's one of the highest graded players according to Pro Football Focus, and is the lone returning starting offensive lineman after Luke Goedeke went down with a knee injury. 

But if the time comes, Smith is ready to move over to help his team. 

"(Cross-training) gives you a different element," Smith said. "What the D-line learns on a daily basis at practice or what the cornerbacks are learning. You take that to the other side of the ball where you originally play, you kind of get an idea to sharpen your game as well."

During his Oct. 1 appearance on "The Coach Mac Show," McElwain hinted at several players who could make impacts on both sides of the ball. He listed tight ends Hunter Buczkowski and Oakley Lavalli as players who could see time at linebacker and hinted that freshmen defensive backs Donte Kent and Daedae Hill could potentially contribute on offense. 

"We're creating depth from both sides of the ball," McElwain said.

Alonzo McCoy, a senior safety, also saw time at receiver during his time at Redford Thurston High School. Now, with the team in need of depth, McCoy is more than happy to offer his services on the offensive side. There's also the layer of understanding the offense better.

He also said he wants to show he has the best hands on the team. 

"We get to showcase our skills," McCoy said. "Us getting to learn the scheme and what the coaches think when they call this play or that play, getting to understand why everything is being called. Then, if someone gets hurt, next man up." 

Regardless of who is able to contribute on either side of the ball, simply the fact of having more options to choose from is important for Akey and the rest of the staff. It's also helped the program to unite toward their goal of a conference title. 

"There's some pretty cool things we've done with some guys," Akey said. "I think it helps the nature of our team and if nothing else, it helps our understanding of, 'This is the team, it's about all of us.'"

Akey jokingly noted that he would not consider star junior receiver Kalil Pimpleton to play nose guard. However, he did hint that there were exciting prospects in the works during the cross-training sessions. 

"There's some pretty good weapons on that other side," Akey said.