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CMU football midseason grades: A lot to like, but room to grow

Jim McElwain talks to the players before they go onto the field during the Ohio State game, Wednesday, Nov. 4

Three games into a shortened season, Central Michigan has gotten a chance to show its new faces. 

All over the field, there are names new to the program making their opening statements. Yes, there are a flurry of returning playmakers, but they've mixed with a solid group of newcomers to push the Chippewas to a 2-1 start to the season.

Now, halfway through the shortened year, the one loss will likely prove to be detrimental, as the Chippewas now need Western Michigan to lose two of its last three games while winning out themselves to have a chance at a Mid-American Conference West Division championship.

Yet, look for coach Jim McElwain and his squad to continue playing and experimenting with the roster's many parts heading into 2021, where CMU will have a reloaded roster. 

Here are Central Michigan Life's midseason grades for CMU's 2020 football team: 

Quarterbacks: B-

With senior David Moore having no answers regarding his eligibility, redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson was given the reins to the offense. He's flashed plenty of talent in his first three games, most notably his arm strength and ability to move the pocket, and yet, there is plenty of room to grow. 

If Richardson is the guy for the remainder of the season, he'll need to improve his pocket awareness. At times, his feet get jittery and he will step into trouble, while others he throws in a hurry and the ball sails on him. All in all, however, it's been an adequate audition. He's only turned the ball over one time, which is important as a young quarterback. He's helped the team much more than he's hurt them. 

As far as his standing within the conference, Richardson has performed near the middle of the conference in most statistics. His 596 yards ranks eighth, while his 68.6 passing grade from Pro Football Focus ranks fifth among MAC quarterbacks with at least 65 passing attempts. 

Running backs: A

Between junior Kobe Lewis and redshirt freshman Lew Nichols, the Chippewas have found a 1-2 punch in their backfield that is on par with what they had last year in Lewis and Jonathan Ward. 

Lewis has gone over 100 yards twice, while Nichols continues to stake his claim as a two-way weapon. Both running backs are assets in both the passing and run game. 

Currently, Lewis ranks fifth in the MAC in rushing yards, as do the Chippewas as a team. Junior Darius Bracy and freshman Zahir Swann, two players in their first year as running backs, have both proved to be solid additions to the position group. Bracy is averaging over 10 yards a carry and Swann has shown his abilities as both a return man and a blocker. 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A-

There's plenty of talent to go around in this group. 

Junior Kalil Pimpleton has performed as advertised, especially in the Chippewas' loss to WMU where he contributed in all three phases of the offense. Junior Dallas Dixon is a pleasant surprise, leading the team in catches and yards. Senior JaCorey Sullivan has been quiet, only catching six passes on 12 targets. 

Sophomore Tyrone Scott was not with the team for the WMU game, and with the emergence of Dixon his role may be in jeopardy going forward. Junior Drayton Law made an incredible catch late in the WMU game, and has made his claim for more time going forward. 

With the transfer of Tony Poljan, the Chippewas haven't used a traditional tight end very often. That said, seniors Hunter Buczkowski and Oakley Lavalli have been good assets in the run game while junior Keegan Cossou and sophomore Joel Wilson each converted a two-point conversion last week. 

Offensive line: B+

With three starters from last year gone to graduation, and three pieces from the 2020 recruiting class not coming this fall, the Chippewas were forced to make some changes from within. The result has been a patchwork offensive line that has, for the most part, done a good job -- especially in the run game. 

Senior right tackle Derek Smith ranks in the top half of the conference in both pass and run blocking according to PFF, including ranking second in run blocking. Junior tackle Bernhard Raimann, converted from tight end, ranks fifth in pass blocking. Sophomore Danny Motowski has also performed well up front, but is currently dealing with an injury.  

Junior center Jamezz Kimbrough has struggled, receiving a 42.4 pass-blocking grade and a 57.5 run-blocking grade from PFF, both among the 10 worst in the MAC among qualified linemen. With that said, the Chippewas have allowed just three sacks all year. That stat alone is good enough for a passing grade. 

Defensive line: B+

Heading into the matchup with WMU, the Chippewa defensive line was in line for an "A." However a poor performance against the run turned the tables. The Broncos dominated in the trenches, gaining over 600 yards of total offense. 

Senior defensive end Troy Hairston has been phenomenal. He leads all qualified defenders in run-stop percentage and ranks second in pass rush productivity, two PFF stats that measure the effectiveness of a defensive lineman. Sophomore Tico Brown has also performed well, ranking in the top-15 in each of those statistics, too. 

Senior tackles Mo Diallo and Robi Stuart are both solid contributors on every down, giving the Chippewas a good core of players up front. The problem is depth. With LaQuan Johnson already out for the season, the Chippewas will be leaning on guys such as junior Amir Siddiq, sophomore Jacques Bristol and redshirt freshman Fred Stokes to provide good performances while giving the above contributors a rest. 

Linebackers: B

Again, another group on pace for an "A" before last week's performance. Junior Troy Brown continues to be as good as it gets in the second level while fellow junior George Douglas has taken a massive step forward in his first year as a full time starter. 

Douglas and Brown are the sixth and ninth, respectively, highest-graded linebackers in the MAC according to PFF. 

There isn't much depth behind Brown and Douglas, with redshirt freshman Justin Whiteside rotating back and forth between end and linebacker while Chuck Jones plays sparingly as well. After those two, only Ormondell Dingle and Jayden Cray have seen playing time. 

Brown is ranked as the top pass rushing linebacker in the MAC by PFF as well as a top-10 linebacker in pass coverage. He and Douglas form one of the best duos in the MAC and Brown was sorely missed in the first half of the WMU game. Brown and Douglas are the heartbeat of the defense, and if they continue to play well, this grade will go up. 

Secondary: C+

Boasting plenty of new faces, the Chippewa secondary was going to have its fair share of struggles. However, three weeks in, CMU now ranks 11th in the MAC with 787 passing yards allowed, ahead of only Ball State. The trio of juniors Brian Edwards, Dishon McNary and Richard Bowens have all had their good moments; however, as a unit they need to be better. 

Edwards was named to the PFF National Team of the Week after his performance against NIU, but struggled in the following week. He allowed touchdowns on both of the plays he was targeted. Bowens was the best of the three against WMU, breaking up a pass in the end zone and blowing up a screen. Bowens has been a strong tackler all season long, which is valuable in the secondary. 

At safety, sophomore Willie Reid has been the best of the unit to this point. He had a huge game against Ohio and has been solid since. Seniors Alonzo McCoy and Gage Kreski and junior Devonni Reed are all good tacklers as well. 

The big problem with the secondary is that they haven't generated many takeaways. When the offense sputters, and it has at times, it's up to the secondary to generate momentum, which comes in the form of takeaways. 

Special teams: B

Freshman kicker Marshall Meeder has done what he's needed to do, going 2-for-2 on field goals and avoiding mishaps on kickoffs. Redshirt freshman Luke Elzinga started the season with an outstanding 76-yard punt and has been good ever since. Both have done well in their first year playing with the program. 

The kickoff coverage team struggled mightily in the opener against Ohio but has since kept it together. Freshmen Donte Kent and Daedae Hill have showcased their speed by getting downfield and making plays, while Kreski continues to be a special teams ace. 

If not for the poor performance against Ohio, this unit may have snuck into the "A" range. There's not much to speak of in terms of a return game. However there haven't been any turnovers, either, which is a good sign. This unit isn't far from a "B+" or "A-." 

Coaching: B+ 

Using five quarterbacks in a game isn't exactly a great strategy, but in a way it's what CMU and coach Jim McElwain has to do this year. 

For the most part, the staff has done a good job of playing to the strengths of their team. The performance on both sides of the ball throughout the second half of the WMU game showed this team has good coaching in all facets. 

The key to evaluating this coaching staff will be what happens now. With the Chippewas needing a lot of help to get another chance at the MAC title, it'll be on the coaches to keep their players engaged in the season. As a team, they cannot quit, and it'll be on McElwain to make sure of that.