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Sometimes it’s not the strongest, the fastest, or the most heralded player who has the biggest impact on the football field. Sometimes it’s the hardest worker with the most drive to succeed.

Someone who can earn his way, and the respect of his teammates, is often the guy that brings a locker room together.

Justin Cherocci arrived on the Central Michigan University campus in 2010 as a walk-on from Birmingham Brother Rice, where he played under legendary coach Al Fracassa. Cherocci was redshirted by then first-year head coach Dan Enos, who couldn’t have dreamed that this 18-year-old would one day become the Mid-American Conference’s leading tackler.

“We’ve seen him grow a ton,” Enos said. “He came in a little immature, but every year he’s made great strides, earned a scholarship, and grown leaps and bounds. He’s a very good student now, a great leader, and a very integral part of our football team. He’s the quarterback of our defense.”

During his sophomore season, Cherocci finished fifth in the MAC with 132 tackles, and despite a slight drop off in 2013, Cherocci finished atop the conference with 121 tackles.

He makes all the calls for the defense, makes sure everyone is in the right place, and can come up with the big play when his team needs it most.

Cherocci (6-0, 230 pounds) led the team with four sacks during his junior campaign, and was second for the Chippewas with 9.5 tackles for loss. But his responsibilities go beyond racking up statistics.

“I just want to make sure I’m doing my part on this defense,” he said. “I have to get everyone set, and make the calls. If I’m where I’m supposed to be, I’ll make the right play.”

Making the right play hasn’t been a problem for Cherocci over the past few years, and he attributes his growth on the football field to his coaching staff at CMU, and the tutelage he received from Fracassa.

“He helped with my work ethic and taught me to never give up,” Cherocci said of Fracassa. “I’ve always wanted to prove myself, and I’ve always carried that chip on my shoulder.”

Cherocci will get a chance to prove himself every Saturday this fall. He is intensely focused on the upcoming season, and he knows that if he wants to pursue a pro football career, he’s going to have to continue to push himself, and his teammates.

“I think you always have that dream to play in the NFL, but I’m really just focusing on this year and giving everything I’ve got to this team,” he said.

Enos enters his fifth season at CMU with a 19-30 overall record, but things are looking up.

“We think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Enos said. “A lot of it is going to come down to how our defensive line plays, and we’ll try to develop depth and consistency there. But having a guy like Justin in the middle of everything will be a positive for us.”

Central Michigan

Last season: 6-6, 5-3

Coach: Dan Enos, 19-30 at CMU, 19-30 overall

Notable: Wide receiver Titus Davis returns for his senior year after putting up 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to being named All-MAC first team in 2013. For the second straight year, he's been named to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation's top receiver. He'll be counted on, alongside sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush (2,349 yards, 15 TD in 2013), to lead the Chippewas offense.

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