The Central Michigan Chippewas surprised a lot of people by going 10-4 last year, including a MAC Championship and a victory in the Motor City Bowl.
The Chippewas did all that despite being picked fourth in the MAC West Division, and after being picked second in the West this year, they are out to prove prognosticators wrong.
They’ll start on the road toward another potential MAC title at 6 p.m. Saturday against the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence. There are many factors weighing against the Chippewas in the game. Not only are the Jayhawks a BCS Conference opponent, which CMU has typically struggled with, but Central Michigan hasn’t won a road opener since 1996.
Hoping to change all that will be first year coach Butch Jones. Jones isn’t a newbie to the CMU staff – he coached at CMU from 1998-2004 before taking a job as the wide receivers coach at West Virginia.
He has his background in the spread, and in the spread option employed at West Virginia, and spent much of fall camp trying to impress toughness on his new squad.
If he runs a style of offense at least somewhat similar to the one run at West Virginia, Jones will have an ideal triggerman.
Quarterback Dan LeFevour is big, fast and talented. The Davey O’Brien award candidate passed for 3,031 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, both Chippewa records. He added another 521 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Perhaps most importantly, last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year had a 10-2 record as a starter, while completing close to 64 percent of his throws.
But this is far from a one-man team. Also back is running back Ontario Sneed (5-foot-11 203), who is on the Doak Walker watch list. Despite suffering through injuries, Sneed still managed close to 1,200 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns. He’s as much a threat through the air (52 catches) as he is on the ground (5.7 yards per carry).
LeFevour’s top wide receiver, 6-5 Bryan Anderson also returns. Anderson had 73 catches for 867 yards last year on his way to earning first team All-MAC honors. Justin Gardner will be a solid number two. He had close to 500 yards receiving to go with five touchdowns last year. When the Chippewas go into four wide receiver sets, expect to see Duane Brooks, 5-10, and Kito Poblah, 6-2. J.J. Watt (6-5 240) is the starting tight end.
The defensive line is small, but is spearheaded by defensive tackles Steven Friend (6-2 294) and Casey Droscha (6-1 258). The duo combined for 95 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. At one defensive end spot will be Frank Zombo (6-4 259), who had 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks a year ago. The other spot will belong to Sam Williams (6-4 218), a player who started at linebacker, converted to tight end and now has found a home at defensive end.
The linebackers are probably the strength of the defense. The group is led by middle linebacker Red Keith (5-11 242), who leads all Football Bowl Subdivision returning players with 326 career tackles. He had 127 last year, including five for loss. He’ll be joined by Ike Brown (5-11 203) on the weak side. Brown was a second-team All-MAC selection two years ago after putting up 11.5 tackles behind the line, but suffered a season ending injury last year against Michigan. Tim Brazzel (6-0 185) will man the strong side.
The Chippewas also return several players in the defensive backfield, led by Josh Gordy (5-11 190) at cornerback. He’ll be joined by Eric Fraser (6-0 202) at the other spot. The safeties include strong safety Curtis Cutts (6-0 214) and former walk-on Calvin Hissong (6-4 196). It’s a sure-tackling group: Gordy, Cutts and Hissong all had at least 61 tackles last year.
Punter Tony Mikulec, a second-team All-MAC selection, heads the special teams.
This is a team that got progressively better as last year went along. After losing three of their first five games, they went on to take eight out of the final nine, with the lone loss to Northern Illinois. They’ll hope for a faster start this time around.