Central Michigan struggled against MAC teams last season, as a 3-5 record in conference play resulted in a 6-7 finish. Head coach John Bonamego is hoping to turn things around this fall while leading the Chippewas to a third straight bowl game. A total of 15 starters are returning, but quarterback is a big question mark following the departure for four-year starter Cooper Rush. The defense took a step backwards in 2016 and it remains to be seen how much this unit can improve with uncertainty both up front and on the back end. The West Division is already tough with Toledo, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois expected to lead the way, so Bonamego and company have their work cut out for them if they want to go bowling again.
Previewing Central Michigan Football’s Offense for 2017
For the first time since the Dan LeFevour era, Central Michigan will be returning to a spread offense under the direction of new offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky.
The two candidates at quarterback are promising 6'7" redshirt freshman Tony Poljan and Shane Morris, a grad transfer from Michigan. Morris, a former four-star recruit, started two games in his three active seasons with the Wolverines. He will enter preseason camp as the favorite but is by no means guaranteed to win the job.
Central Michigan actually improved a great deal in the run game from 2015 to ’16 but still finished last in rushing yards in MAC play for a second straight year. It is in large part due to an offensive line that has not gotten the job done, an oddity for a program that usually churns out strong talent up front. The Chippewas do return all of their O-line starters.
Tailback Romello Ross emerged at the end of 2015 as a true freshman, but he missed all of last season with an ACL injury. Central Michigan is quite deep at the position, with the explosive Devon Spalding (758 yards), promising Jonathan Ward (200) and Minnesota transfer Berkley Edwards providing sparks.
Corey Willis, who caught 72 passes for 1,091 yards last season, is a first-team All-MAC candidate and leads the receiving corps. Mark Chapman (44 catches, 592 yards) and tight end Tyler Conklin (42, 560) are perfect complementary weapons for the Chips’ spread attack. Conklin could have an NFL future.
Previewing Central Michigan Football’s Defense for 2017
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Central Michigan ranked first in the MAC in total defense in 2014 and second in 2015 but dropped to fifth last year, allowing 391.9 yards per game. Pass defense was the issue; the Chips gave up 222.9 yards per game and allowed a league-high 33 TD passes.
Middle linebacker Malik Fountain (10 TFLs) is among the conference’s best at his position. The linebackers around him are a question mark, but there are several players who have seen considerable playing time.
Amari Coleman and Josh Cox are entering their third year as starting cornerbacks, with Coleman earning first-team All-MAC honors last season. Safety is a different story. Both 2016 starters are gone, but hard-hitting Otis Kearney and former quarterback Zach Oakley will be interesting to watch develop.
Joe Ostman is a fifth-year senior who is the best pass rusher among a deep set of defensive ends. The Chips have ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks the last two seasons.
Previewing Central Michigan Football’s Specialists for 2017
Major difficulties in the kicking department probably cost CMU a couple victories in 2016, so new placekicker Kaden Keon will counted on to provide more consistency. He was used exclusively on kickoffs as a true freshman. Australian Jack Sheldon and Cooper Mosjiejenko will continue to share punting duties. The Chippewas have not been strong in the return department since the Antonio Brown era (late 2000s), so any positives there would be a boost.
John Bonamego guided the Chips to a surprising 6–2 record in league play in 2015, his first season as the head coach at his alma mater, but slumped to 3–5 in Year 2. Still, CMU has been to two straight bowl games. Making it three straight will be a challenge.
Gone is four-year starting quarterback Cooper Rush, the second-most prolific passer in conference history. There are proven talents on both sides of the ball, but there are still areas of concern — the new QB, the running game, the pass defense, to name a few. A middle-of-the pack finish in the MAC West would be a success.
National Ranking: 106
MAC West Prediction: 5
(Corey Willis photo courtesy of Getty Images)