CMU football focused on 'winning the now' as 2022 season begins

An in-camera double exposure of CMU football coach Jim McElwain at the bowl game trophy presentation in McGuirk Arena, Saturday, Feb. 26.

Central Michigan football is aware of the outside expectations. 

Jim McElwain knows his team was picked to finish third in the Mid-American Conference's west division in the preseason media poll, a year after his team finished a fluke play away from earning a trip to the title game. Before 2021, the team was picked fourth. 

"Obviously, people in this conference look at us and say we're not very good," McElwain said. "Which, you know, that's all part of it. It's up to us to change the way they think. Think they picked us third. It gets us what they think of us. So really, the message to our team and our guys is at the end of the day, you've got to change the way people think about you." 

The Chippewas are in a unique place heading into McElwain's fourth season at the helm. An array of top contributors, such as linebacker Troy Brown and wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton, are gone. Yet, the team returns the reigning national rushing leader in Lew Nichols and a variety of experienced veterans.

The returners from 2021 finished the season on a six-game winning streak, headlined by wins at Western Michigan and in an impromptu Sun Bowl against Washington State. The departed leave big shoes to fill on both sides, yet the team has the resources to go about filling them. 

Even though the outside thought is that the Chippewas will end the year behind Toledo and Northern Illinois, expectations are different inside the locker room. However, rather than rush to dreams of title game glory at Ford Field in Detroit, McElwain is stressing a day-to-day approach. 

"I don't believe in putting undue pressure on yourself," McElwain said. "Having the Detroit piece, that's going to happen based on the work you put in today and building on it every single day. We talk about winning the now. I think it's important we don't have lulls in preparation headed that way." 

Running back room forms strongest position group

When Kobe Lewis announced his transfer to Purdue, the Chippewas lost one-half of what it believed to be a top 1-2 punch in the conference. Given the track records of both Lewis and Nichols, it certainly seemed as though the duo would've been tough to stop. 

Now, Nichols returns to carry the primary share of the weight. Behind him, only sophomores Marion Lukes and Myles Bailey have gained significant experience. Redshirt freshmen Jake Tafelski and Christian Brown, along with true freshman Tyler Dewitt, make up the rest of the backfield. 

Despite having a dip in depth in comparison to years prior, McElwain reiterated his thoughts from the spring — the running back position remains the team's best. 

"Even a year ago, you may have heard me say from the get go that I felt our strongest room was the running back room," McElwain said. "Even though we may not have the numbers, our strongest room is our running back room."

The return of Nichols is an important one. After his historic season, the new world of Name, Image, and Likeness and its impact met the sophomore head-on. In the offseason, he inked several deals with businesses such as Barstool Sports and released his own merchandise line. 

Bailey and Lukes both made important plays in key moments last season. The former hauled in a 24-yard pass on a pivotal third down in CMU's comeback win over Florida International, while the latter was named third team All-MAC as a returner and took a kickoff 100 yards to the end zone against Eastern Michigan. 

"They're not really young anymore," McElwain said of the duo. "Now they've grown up. Both Bailey and Lukes, I feel very comfortable with those guys playing and they played well at times last year and they'll do the same things this year.

"The one thing about that position, because of the quality in that room, you're going to see us in some personnel groupings that maybe are a little different than what we've done in the past where we get a couple of those guys on the field at the same time because of what they're able to do with the ball in their hands."

Health updates

McElwain suffered a seizure on July 31 and was hospitalized for several days. Speaking Wednesday, he said he was feeling well and recovering. He praised the work of Dr. George Kikano and MyMichigan Health. 

"I feel great," McElwain said. "Other than you're gonna see me wobbling around a little bit with a couple of compression fractures in my in my back. And yet, you know what, it's nothing what these guys go through."

Tyson Davis was set to play an important role in his true freshman season. Those plans were derailed when the Goodrich native suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Missouri. 

Now, heading into his second year, Davis is recovered and full-speed ahead.

"You'll notice I didn't even talk about him on the injury list because he's back," McElwain said. "Before Tyson went down a year ago, he was gonna play for us. He was a guy that was on the non redshirt list, so to say, we felt like he was going to be able to help us and that hasn't changed."

The defensive line has been somewhat hampered by injuries early on. LaQuan Johnson is still dealing with the knee injury suffered in the Sun Bowl, while Jacques Bristol has been limited due to a leg injury. 

Bristol's limitations have been precautionary.