With so much returning firepower, Chippewa defense primed to take step forward in 2020
Mid-American Conference opponents had a hard time running the ball against Central Michigan's defense last season.
In the eight conference games, the Chippewas allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Robb Akey retains a majority of the contributors from last year's squad.
Safe to say he's excited.
"This is year two with the package," Akey said. "There's some ability to roll that way and a ton of game playing experience."
Seven starters return, as do plenty of players who contributed in limited forms last year. A large part of that success hinged on the Chippewas striking gold on a pair of position switches. Troy Brown moved from safety to linebacker, and former linebacker Troy Hairston excelled at defensive end.
Brown, the team's leading tackler and breakout star, returns after earning First Team All-MAC honors. Brown was strong in coverage last season, intercepting three passes and breaking up two more. He was also one of the team's most consistent tacklers, missing just 14 tackles throughout the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Now, with a year at linebacker under his belt, there's plenty of potential for the emerging star.
"(Brown)'s a playmaking son of a gun," Akey said. "He's got a great football awareness to him. I think he's gained comfort knowing how to work within the package."
Also returning at linebacker for the Chippewas are George Douglas and Chuck Jones, both of whom played in all 14 games last year. Jones played sparingly backing up graduated senior Michael Oliver, and Douglas stepped into a starting role following Andrew Ward's career-ending injury.
According to PFF, Jones was the Chippewas second-highest graded tackler, behind only defensive back Brandon Brown. He played only 297 snaps, compared to Oliver's 654, but graded highly in two of CMU's most important games last year. In the Chippewas' MAC West-clinching win over Toledo, he received a 90.2 grade and made 4 tackles on just 17 snaps.
Up front, the Chippewas bring back three-of-four starters. The lone departed senior, defensive end Sean Adesanya, leaves a void that would not be easily filled if not for the returning depth Akey has at his disposal. Redshirt sophomore LaQuan Johnson will keep his starting role this season after leading the team in quarterback hurries last year.
Hairston, meanwhile, is in a similar position as Brown. With a year of playing his new position under his belt, the expectation is that he will now take on an increased load. Last year, Hairston was used primarily as a pass rusher but will be counted on to be a starter, play more snaps and help contribute in running situations.
"I expect big things coming from (Hairston)," Akey said.
Also returning up front will be seniors Mohamed Diallo and Robi Stuart. Diallo played the final six games last year after transferring from Texas A&M and showed signs of becoming an anchor on the front line. Meanwhile, Stuart had a phenomenal season on the interior after stepping into a starting spot for the first time.
Akey has christened Stuart with the nickname "Captain Caveman" due to his Tarzan-like celebration following a big play. Speaking with reporters, Akey expressed optimism that there would be plenty to come from Stuart in 2020.
"You can count on him to throw some guys around in there," Akey said. "He's done a great job with his strength. He's a real sharp guy, a real smart guy. He can help make some things go and I think he gives us a chance to have some strength in the middle of the front."
In the secondary, there is plenty of depth at both the cornerback and safety positions. The difference between the two is that several safeties have game reps with the Chippewas, while the depth at corner is reliant on the contributions of a trio of transfers in Dishon McNary, Brian Edwards and Richard Bowens III.
At safety, Alonzo McCoy and Devonni Reed return as mainstays on the unit. A senior and junior, respectively, the duo have played a ton of snaps in their careers and provide important experience. Behind them, Willie Reid and Gage Kreski both have experience to spell the starters if needed.
Reid played a lot of snaps last season in the nickel position as part of a package that Akey loves to use. In these cases, the Chippewas will substitute either a linebacker or defensive lineman with a defensive back such as Reid. In 2020, Reid will have to compete for reps in the role as the odd man out of the trio of Bowens, Edwards and McNary.
Not much is known about the transfer trio. McNary made his Chippewa debut in the New Mexico Bowl, turning in a subpar performance as the Chippewa defense was gashed. It's expected that Edwards holds a leg up in the competition, having been recruited by coach Jim McElwain at Florida. Bowens comes to CMU with two years of solid experience at Iowa State.
With all of this returning depth, paired with new guys for Akey to experiment with, the Chippewa defense will be facing high expectations from the beginning of the season.