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An early look at the Central Michigan Chippewas

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Wisconsin’s second opponent of the 2019 season comes from the MAC

Texas A&M v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

It’s never too early to write about next season!

With spring football completed for college programs, and with what feels like a long offseason until late July/early August, B5Q wanted to check on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 opponents—with the help of some of our SB Nation friends.

Note: These previews will not be in the chronological order of the games, but we hope to get through all of them at some point before fall camp rolls around.

After a road contest against South Florida to start off the season, Wisconsin returns home to host Central Michigan in a Sept. 7 matchup.

CMU boasts a new head coach in Jim McElwain after a rough 2018 campaign. James H. Jimenez from SB Nation’s Hustle Belt provides a breakdown of the MAC program and former collegiate destination of one J.J. Watt.

What are the overall thoughts about the football team heading into the 2019 season? What can Jim McElwain bring to the MAC program?

Well, it can’t be worse than last season. Coach Bonamego inherited a tough situation and did his best with what he had on hand, but no one is going to survive a 1-11 season, even if they signed a big extension after the previous year.

Jim McElwain comes in to a job that he himself has said he wasn’t actively looking for until he was approached by AD Michael Alford, but there’s certainly reason for optimism. Coach Bono left the program in a lot better shape than be found it, and Alford is currently constructing the facilities that will give McElwain a bit of an edge in recruiting, pouring millions of dollars into much-needed facility fixes at Kelly/Shorts.

McElwain also has a reputation for being a program fixer, and if there’s a program that needs to be fixed that has great potential, it’s Central.

There’s plenty of change on the staff, so it’ll be new for everyone involved. Most of the current staff was with McElwain at Florida, most notably new offensive coordinator Charlie Frye (yes, that Charlie Frye) and defensive coordinator Robb Akey (a former head coach at Idaho). Mike Cummings, the orchestrator of the Dan LeFevour/Antonio Brown offense, also returns to CMU as an offensive line coach to help Frye get his bearings.

Who are the main players returning and how could they help the team next season?

Most of CMU’s biggest contributors either graduated or transferred, leaving a truly clean slate in terms of roster construction.

However, there’s several players to build on:

Tony Poljan, a converted quarterback playing tight end, will almost immediately be the best receiver on the roster. Bono’s biggest gamble was recruiting a four-star athlete to play QB, when most Big Ten schools wanted him as a TE. His loss will be McElwain’s gain, as Poljan, a 6’7 vertical threat with developing blocking skills, will be a matchup nightmare. Even as a quarterback last season, Poljan saw a lot of involvement as a tight end, including looks out wide and topped the receiving stats at least once.

Kalil Pimpleton, a transfer wide receiver from Virginia Tech. He is listed at 5’9, but has himself admitted on Twitter he’s probably closer to 5’7. He may stand at an unorthodox size for a receiver, but dude is fast and he impressed many at the spring scrimmage with his first step ability and ability to snag the ball. Pimpleton didn’t get a chance to play on a crowded VA Tech roster, but with depth at receiver at CMU, he’ll get plenty of looks as a speed slot or jet sweep option.

Jonathan Ward, a senior running back. Ward had the worst season of his career in 2018, as the line had difficulty staying upright and he had difficulty seeing the field for a variety of injuries after sustaining a shoulder injury vs. Kentucky. (Prior to that game, he dared to question the legitimacy of Benny Snell, the UK running back, which retrospectively, was a bad decision.) He struggled to gain 212 yards and one touchdown after a breakout 1,200-plus yard season in 2017. He’s back and healthy, which is good news for a running game which struggled without him, placing in the deep 120s in rushing yards and efficiency. He’ll have a chance to show off his great open field speed and field vision in McElwain’s pro offense.

Da’Quaun Jamison, a redshirt senior defensive back. Jamison saw a lot of run at the slot corner in 2018 and was outstanding. He’s a versatile player who can play safety in a pinch and has a penchant for finishing tackles. He finished with 41 total tackles, four defended passes, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Devonni Reed, a redshirt sophomore defensive back. Reed is electric to watch on the field, and impressed in what was essentially a lost season for CMU in 2018. Playing a unique safety/linebacker spot, Reed compiled an incredible 97 total tackles, with three passes defended and a forced fumble. He’ll get a lot more chances to shine in 2019, with graduations all over the defensive backfield.

Odd name, but hear me out: Luke Elzinga, true freshman punter. This was one of the first McElwain signings, and it’s not every day a program the size of CMU gets a five-star prospect, even with the handicap of him being a local. CMU struggled badly in special teams in 2018, with one of the worst punting units in the country. A remedial offense, combined with lacadasical special teams, placed a good defense in bad spots many times, and in order to win, you have to hold a field position advantage. Elzinga could get his name called early.

Who’s leaving, and has anyone stepped up to be potential replacements in the fall?

Who isn’t leaving?

CMU has had six transfers this offseason, and had at least four players picked up by NFL teams, including second-round pick Sean Bunting-Murphy and fifth-round pick Xavier Crawford.

The two biggest losses were senior defensive end Mike Danna (now at Michigan), who was expected to stay despite the coaching change and was the player McElwain gave the mic to during his first public appearance as head coach, and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Julian Hicks (now at Akron), a late-rising prospect under Bono who blasted McElwain on his way out to the student newspaper, saying McElwain “didn’t care” about him.

There aren’t very many ready-made options to replace Danna, who is an amazing athlete. That said, redshirt freshman La’Quon Johnson could definitely fill that hole, as a 6’2, 282 pound pass rush end. In four games of action under the new redshirt rules, Johnson compiled 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss for 14 yards and two sacks.

Wide receiver is going to be a hodgepodge, as I mentioned before. Pimpleton or JaCorey Sullivan wilI likely fight for the open X or Y spot to play alongside Brandon Childress.

Brandon Brown will replace Bunting-Murphy, while it’ll likely be an open competition for the former Crawford spot.

Way-too-early breakout player of the year candidate based on spring reports?

He’s not going to get a terrible amount of press going into the season, as he has fairly comfortably got his spot, but I really like Brandon Brown. CMU has a recent reputation for creating excellent cover corners and Brown is the epitome of that. The Buffalo native went to Canada as a high schooler to hone his craft and proved a steady replacement on the outside in relief duty in 2018, with 12 tackles and an interception. He has great instinct and doesn’t get beat terribly often.

Good coverage instincts transition seamlessly between coaching staffs and Brown will help lead a suddenly young defensive backfield as they try to develop in this rebuilding year.

Way-too-early prediction not just for the game against Wisconsin itself, but for the 2019 season?

The game against Wisconsin is likely a loss. The Badgers are just plain big and CMU has not traditionally fared well against physical Power 5 programs. But the experience will be crucial for a Chippewa squad that needs a challenge moving forward in order to understand the level of play they’re expected to carry.

The 2019 season is going to be a hard one for Chippewa fans. Rebuilding the program will take at least a year or two, and fair or not, fans will expect immediate results. To that, I say, results are just the cherry on the pie. What matters is simply this: That McElwain installs an expectation of success that resonates with the players and in the case he does leave, puts them in a better position to succeed.

I’d say it’s likely a 5-7 year if some bounces go their way, but with McElwain’s reputation, a surprise 7-5 or 8-4 season wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility.