Mount Pleasant — Corey Willis is excited to be playing in the spread offense again, something he did in high school as a quarterback before coming to Central Michigan, where he has played receiver the last three years.
Willis was named Central’s offensive player of the year last year, leading the team in receptions (71), yards (1,087) and TDs (nine) while helping the Chippewas earn a trip to the Miami Beach Bowl.
Oh, and don’t forget the role he played in the miracle finish at Oklahoma State, when he took the flip from Jesse Kroll — who grabbed a long pass from Cooper Rush before being hauled down — and ran the remaining 12 yards for the TD to give the Chippewas a 30-27 win, their first against a top-25 team since 1991.
Willis would love nothing more than to win a Mid-American Conference title before what he hopes will be an NFL career. It would be a major surprise if the Chippewas find themselves atop the MAC West Division standings since they finished 6-7 last season (3-5 MAC), were picked to finish fifth in the division in the preseason media poll and will have to replace Rush who was a four-year starter.
“My biggest goal is really all about team goals,” pointed out Willis. “We haven’t won the MAC championship yet so just trying to get to a MAC championship and doing everything we can to go undefeated,”
So, what is Willis’ highlight, making the winning play in the Oklahoma State game, right?
“I think when we went to the Detroit bowl (Quick Lane Bowl), just because we had so much adversity, you know Coach Bono (John Bonamego) coming in and then him going through the cancer and stuff like that, and that’s just overpowering, and becoming a team that no one expected us to be and having a chance to beat a Minnesota team, a Big Ten team and we took them right down to the wire (21-14 loss) so that’s my most memorable moment.
“For me, the Oklahoma State game I was just at the right place at the right time. In my opinion, Jesse Kroll is the guy who should get all the credit. I ran the ball 11 yards or something which I’ve done my whole life. He had to go up and make a big catch on three guys so to me it was him making the play and me reaping the benefits of him making the play.”
Now, Willis will be operating out of the spread, with third-year coach John Bonamego bringing in new offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky following Morris Watts’ retirement.
“I think it’s been a great transition for me because it’s been something that I’ve always been used to playing,” said Willis of the spread offense. “In high school, I ran the spread and in middle school we were one of the only teams running the spread so it’s something I’ve been used to my whole life and now that I have the chance to do it on this high level it’s fun.
“I think the strength of my game is when I get the ball in my hands. I think me being a quarterback, mainly a running back in high school, I get comfortable when I get the ball in my hands.”
The Chips also have receivers in Mark Chapman (44 receptions, 592 yards, four TDs) and sophomore Brandon Childress (23, 327, TD). They hope that tight end Tyler Conklin (42, 560, six) can return at some point this season from a foot injury that required surgery in the early days of training camp.
Central has capable running backs in Devon Spalding and Romello Ross, who sat out last season after knee surgery.
Willis feels comfortable working with redshirt freshman Tony Poljan and Shane Morris, a transfer from Michigan.
“They are both very capable quarterbacks,” said Willis. “It’s kind of weird just from the simple fact that Cooper Rush has always been that guy for me. He’s always been the guy in the huddle and it gave me kind of a comfort.
“Now, I have to give these quarterbacks the comfort. I have to be the guy to keep their morale up. I think they are both very strong armed guys. Cooper Rush was a guy who was great in the intermediate game, the short game, but didn’t really like to throw it deep. I think these two quarterbacks love to go deep.
“Shane has more of an understanding of when to check the ball down and when to let his players do the work, and I think Tony Poljan just loves to throw the ball down the field, almost like a Brett Favre gunslinger.”
A LOOK AT CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Last season: 6-7 (3-5 MAC West)
Coach: John Bonamego, third year, 13-13
Outlook: The Cooper Rush Era is over at Central. Rush threw for 12,891 yards and 90 TDs, finishing second in school history behind Dan LeFevour who led the Chippewas to three MAC championships, the final one coming in 2009. Bonamego will look for either Tony Poljan or Michigan transfer Shane Morris to take over the offense which has been changed from the pro style to the spread. Poljan or Morris will have multiple weapons to work with in senior receivers Corey Willis and Mark Chapman. The Chips were dealt a severe blow with tight end Tyler Conklin breaking his foot early in camp, resulting in surgery.
Top players: Corey Willis, Sr., WR (71 receptions, 1,087 yards, nine TDs); Mark Chapman, Sr., WR, (44 receptions, 592 yards, four TDs); Shane Morris, Sr., QB; Tony Poljan, red-shirt Fr., QB; Devon Spalding, Sr., RB (765 rushing yards); Romello Ross, So., RB (returning from season-ending knee injury).