MAC spring football roundup: McElwain optimistic about Central Michigan's progress

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Jim McElwain, who took over as head coach in December following the firing of John Bonamego after CMU’s 1-11 (0-8 Mid-American Conference) season, has an idea of what he has to work with when camp gets underway this summer,

Mount Pleasant — Jim McElwain looked satisfied as he joined a group of reporters to talk about Central Michigan’s football team following the Chippewas’ open practice Saturday afternoon at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

McElwain, who took over as head coach in December following the firing of John Bonamego after CMU’s 1-11 (0-8 Mid-American Conference) season, has an idea of what he has to work with when camp gets underway this summer, a far cry from when he first got the job.

McElwain seems encouraged, even optimistic bringing in former Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady and having a playmaker to work with in Kalil Pimpleton, who earned a spot on The Detroit News Dream Team as an athlete in 2016 following his senior season at Muskegon.

Pimpleton, who sat out last year after transferring from Virginia Tech, joins former Muskegon teammate JaCorey Sullivan, Brandon Childress and Bailey Edwards to form a solid receiving group which now includes 6-foot-7 Tony Poljan, who has moved to tight end from quarterback.

It was Poljan who turned down an offer to play tight end at Minnesota for the opportunity to play quarterback at CMU, but Poljan didn’t get the job done at quarterback last season, nor did Tommy Lazzaro during the second half of the season.

“I thought we ended up having a really good spring,” McElwain said. “The progress here has been fantastic so I’m excited with what these guys have invested in and yet we have a long way to go. I can’t wait until we get them back in fall camp and get ready to play the season.”

McElwain liked the competition at quarterback between Dormady, David Moore and Lazzaro.

“They’ve done a good job,” McElwain said. “I think Daniel (Richardson) has done a good job too, George (Pearson) has done a good job. We’ll get that ironed out as we go in through the summer. We’ll see really who takes leadership and ahold of this football team.”

Dormady has one year of eligibility remaining. He spent the first two years at Tennessee as Joshua Dobbs’ backup, then beat out Jarrett Guarantano for the starting job in 2017, starting the first five games before having his season cut short by a shoulder injury. He transferred to Houston, appeared in just two games and therefore has one more year of eligibility.

Dormady, a four-star quarterback coming out of high school in Texas, showed his potential when he led Tennessee to a 42-41, double-overtime win over Georgia Tech in his first career start in 2017, throwing for 221 yards and two TDs.

So, how well did Dormady perform in spring ball? After all, CMU had a transfer in former Michigan quarterback Shane Morris come in and start for a season, leading the Chippewas to a winning record (8-5, 6-2) and bowl appearance in 2017.

“He looked good and so did the other guys,” said McElwain, making sure he wasn’t giving a quarterback the nod as the starter over the others. “It’s fun to see him progress as far as learning kind of what we want to do. It was good to see those guys move the team today.”

On the opening series of the live scrimmage, Dormady found Childress, who out-fought the defender for the catch, down the right sideline, then connected with Edwards in the end zone for a TD.

And, while Childress and Edwards came up with catches, it was 5-foot-7 Pimpleton who caught McElwain’s eye during the spring.

“I guarantee you this, he’s (Pimpleton) already on my ‘get-it to board’ so he’s going to touch it,” McElwain said. “He’s an electric player, and not only that, he’s an unbelievable teammate. He’s a guy that invests in it and really does a great job. He’s the first guy in all the time. If you could have 110 of him you’d have a great football team.”

Look for McElwain to also get the ball to Jonathan Ward, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2017.

McElwain has been successful at every stop. After working as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Nick Saban at Alabama (2008-11) — working with Heisman Trophy award winner Tim Tebow and winning two national championships — McElwain took the top job at Colorado State, where he was Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in 2014 after a 10-3 season, then SEC Coach of the Year in 2015 while guiding the Florida Gators to a 10-4 record, followed by a 9-4 record and No. 14 national ranking in 2016. He was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan last season after parting ways at Florida in 2017.

McElwain has familiarity with his staff, bringing on former Idaho head coach Robb Akey as his defensive coordinator and former NFL quarterback Charlie Frye as his offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Akey and Frye worked under McElwain at Florida.

Sullivan talked about McElwain.

“From Day 1 when he came in he just told us to work hard and attack the day every day,” Sullivan said. “We just listen to what he says and do what we need to do and in the long run everything will take care of itself. When Mac came everybody was on a clean slate so everybody had the chance to prove themselves and I feel like I’ve done well.”

The Chippewas got a late addition Tuesday when offensive lineman Oge Udeogu signed on as a grad transfer from Iowa State.

Lester pleased with depth in third year

Western Michigan third-year coach Tim Lester feels the depth is finally where he wants it in his third year as head coach.

Lester took over for P.J. Fleck, who moved on to be head coach at Minnesota after guiding the Broncos to the Mid-American Conference championship and an unbeaten regular season in 2016.

The Broncos finished 6-6 in Lester’s first season in 2017, failing to receive a bowl bid. They finished 7-6 last season, losing to BYU in the in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.

Lester would love nothing more than to have a healthy Jon Wassink at quarterback for a full season. Wassink suffered a broken collarbone midway through the 2017 season, then suffered a season-ending foot injury at the midway point of last season.

Lester moved up WMU’s spring ball a couple of weeks. It's now completed by the end of March.

“We started moving it up a bit a couple of years ago,” Lester said. “We did it for a couple of reasons. We wanted to give them a longer time to get rid of bumps of bruises that we get from spring ball. We wanted to give them more time in summer training to get bigger, faster and stronger.

“The kids really enjoyed it and it got them done two weeks before finals because we have early finals here, finals are next week. It’s been good for our players.”

When asked about Wassink, Lester said, “He didn’t do any team reps. He’s not 100-percent cleared. He’s cleared enough to move around, pushing off of it and running. He did all the individual drills, did all the 1-on-1s, the 7-on-7s. He’s involved in everything but the team period because we just can’t have anybody step on it yet. It’s functional and it’s healed. He’ll probably be cleared full go in the next couple of weeks, in early May, but it was fun to get him out there and watch him do 7-on-7s.

“He looked good. The game is slowing down for him now. He’s played long enough that he’s thinking at a different level than everybody else. We just had a unique stretch where our Power Five opponents the last two years we’re all 10-win teams. USC was a 10-win team two years ago and so was Michigan State, then Syracuse won 10 this year and so did Michigan. If you take those four games out, I think Jon’s record was 11-1.”

Now, Lester will have two experienced quarterbacks in Wassink and Kaleb Eleby. Sure, running back Jamauri Bogan graduated, but the Broncos will have depth at that spot, too, with All-MAC first-team running back Levante Bellamy (1,228 yards) back, along with physical, 5-8, 215-pound Davon Tucker and sophomore Chase Brown playing behind an experienced offensive line. Luke Juriga will move over from right guard to center to replace All-MAC performer John Keenoy.

Lester will have plenty of experienced receivers to work with in freshman All-American Jayden Reed (56 receptions, 797 yards, eight TDs), D’Wayne Eskridge (38-776, three) and 6-foot-4 Jaylen Hall, who has put on 35 pounds since stepping on campus and will play at 180 pounds this season.

“We’re excited about Reed, who is a freshman All-American and you don’t have many of those so we’re moving him to the boundary, putting him to the spot where Steve Neal played when I was quarterback, then Greg Jennings (Vikings) played there, then Jordan White played in the boundary and obviously Corey Davis (Titans) played in the boundary,” Lester said. “It’s kind of where you put your go-to guy when you have one. It makes it structurally the hardest to stop you, like when you’re really strong running the ball and if they want to stop you running the ball they have to man up that guy. We moved him into the boundary and now we’ve been messing with Jaylen Hall and Dashon Bussell playing at the Z position.”

Lester has moved Eskridge to cornerback, also saying he will also play offense at times.

“D Eskridge is a more complete corner because he will hit you, just loves to hit people,” said Lester. “He kind of hit his groove in the boundary because we can blitz off the boundary. He gets to play man. He’s way more physical than any corner we’ve had. And, then we’re still going to use him on offense. We used him on offense one day for seven plays and he scored on five of them. We want to make sure he still touches the ball four, five, six, seven times a game.”

Lester feels the Broncos will be stronger defensively than in the past two seasons.

“We had a very, very large group of freshmen that we chose to red shirt and so I really like our depth on defense,” Lester said. “We basically have all of our starters back and our depth is way stronger than it’s ever been where we can rotate guys.”

Creighton continues EMU’s turnaround

Chris Creighton feels good about his Eastern Michigan program after making the Eagles competitive (19-19, 12-12 MAC) the last three seasons following 20 consecutive non-winning seasons.

EMU earned its first winning season since 1995 with a 7-6 (4-4 MAC) record and bowl appearance in 2016, then after a 5-7 record (3-5 MAC) in 2017, Creighton guided the Eagles to yet another bowl appearance last season when they had a winning record both overall (7-6) and in MAC play (5-3). They defeated Purdue, 20-19, in West Lafayette and lost to Georgia Southern (23-21) in the bowl game in Montgomery, Ala.

Creighton has reason to feel confident heading into the 2019 season with an experienced quarterback in senior Mike Glass III, along with experience in the backfield in Shaq Vann and talented receivers in Arthur Jackson III (46 receptions, 592 yards, five TDs), Matthew Sexton (37-419, three), Dylan Drummond (25-245, one) and Line Latu (22-373, three).

“Mike Glass was our starter during the second half of last season and he looked really good this spring,” Creighton said. “He has the ability to keep people honest and run the ball, but it’s not what he’s best at, that is his accuracy and ability to put the ball where it needs to be and on time.”

Creighton knows a capable backup is needed with injuries being a part of the game.

“There’s a good group behind him, but there’s a gap right now between No. 1 and the guys who are battling for No. 2,” Creighton said. “Jairus Grissom is really coming along from River Rouge. He’s a phenomenal athlete who is still learning about how to play quarterback. He’s electric with the ball. Preston Hutchinson is going into his third year and has a really good grasp on our offense and had a good spring, and then Isaac Stiebeling is in his fourth year. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but we do not have a clear cut No. 2 right now.”

EMU’s defense was the strength of the team with Maxx Crosby getting in on 19 tackles for loss and Jeremiah Harris getting five sacks. Both players are gone with Crosby declaring early for the NFL draft.

“Turan Rush, Clay Holford and Shawn Simeon have all played for us at the defensive end position and those guys have all had good springs,” Creighton said. “Those (Crosby, Harris) are huge shoes to fill. Jeremiah Harris was a two-time All-MAC player and a two-time captain and Maxx was a two-time all-conference player and declared early for the draft. That’s a lot of production that we’re going to be graduating, but that group (Rush, Holford, Simeon) had a good spring and are going to have to step up their game.”

The Eagles’ strength on defense will now be in the back end with all-conference defensive backs Brody Hoying, Vince Calhoun and Kevin McGill all returning.

“I think the secondary will be the strength for us,” Creighton said.