Talented but young, Chippewas facing reload at linebacker position
The departures of George Douglas and Troy Brown leave Central Michigan football in a unique position when it comes to linebacker depth.
Heading into 2022, the Chippewas will need to find two new full-time starters. Despite the fact that Brown and Douglas were the top options, CMU had several athletes who saw time at the positions.
Right now the leaders in the clubhouse are sophomores Kyle Moretti and Justin Whiteside, new linebackers coach Tom Mason told reporters. Both saw significant time in 2021, with Whiteside starting two games in place of Brown and Moretti starting the bowl game in place of Douglas.
"I think there's some real steady guys in there, with Justin Whiteside and Kyle Moretti," Mason said. "Two guys who saw significant playing time last year, and I think they're really quality linebackers. They're more run, hit kind of guys than they are big, physical guys."
Moretti was perhaps a top surprise to fans in 2021, showing off his physicality and hard-hitting ability. This wasn't a shock to those inside the walls of the Chippewa Champions Center, however, as the Colorado native shot up the depth chart in the preseason.
Now he'll play a leading role beside Whiteside, who had a rise of his own last season. With Brown sidelined for two games midway through the year, the Flossmoor, Illinois product put together stellar performances. Among those was his showing against Toledo, in which he made four tackles for loss.
Speaking on the group as a whole, Mason also mentioned freshmen Lawai'a Brown and Dakota Cochran, along with sophomore Fernando Sanchez III as standouts from spring camp.
Sanchez played in 12 games as a true freshman, logging a handful of snaps in relief on defense while playing over 100 on special teams, according to Pro Football Focus. In the Sun Bowl victory over Washington State, he forced a fumble on a kickoff that led to a Chippewa touchdown.
Brown and Cochran both redshirted, with the former not suiting up and the latter playing in four games as a special teamer.
Currently, the Chippewas are operating more with five defensive backs and four down linemen, leaving just two linebacker positions. In the event that Mason and defensive coordinator Robb Akey decide to go with a SAM, or third linebacker, a variety of players could play the role.
Junior Nick Apsey, sophomore Corey Gildersleeve Jr. and Sanchez were three names Mason discussed at the SAM position. Both Apsey and Gildersleeve played roles on special teams in 2021.
In some cases, youth is troubling. Mason believes that the youth can quickly turn to experience with the right amount of practice reps.
"These guys gotta step their game up one more notch," Mason said. "So how do you do that? You get them playing time."
The 4-2-5 defensive look has been traditional since head coach Jim McElwain arrived. Brown and Douglas had held the two linebacker spots for each of the past two seasons, with Michael Oliver and Brown doing so the first year of the McElwain era.
Mason is in his first spring with the Chippewas, having filled the role vacated by Tim Skipper's departure. A coaching veteran, Mason holds four decades of experience spanning several levels. His most recent coaching stint came in 2020 with the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL.
The Montana native will also hold the title of Assistant Head Coach.