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June 13, 2008
THE SCHEME: Jones kept the spread offense that former coach Brian Kelly installed before he moved on to Cincinnati. Jones and his staff made a few tweaks, but kept the basics.
STAR POWER: You'll have to search far and wide to find a quarterback as versatile as junior Dan LeFevour, who last season became just the second player in Division I-A history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season (Vince Young is the other). LeFevour already is Central Michigan's career leader in passing yards, completions, touchdown passes and total offense. LeFevour threw for 27 touchdowns and rushed for 19 more scores last season, and Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell is the only player in the nation who produced more total offense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Rocky Weaver is expected to take over as the Chippewas' starting tight end. One of Weaver's main competitors for the job is classmate Brandin Friske, though senior Andre Moore and sophomore Jake Ekkens also are in the mix.
IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore WR Kito Poblah caught just 14 passes last season, but he came on late and scored three touchdowns in the Chippewas' final four games. He should build on that momentum this season and give Central Michigan a quality third receiver to complement Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson.
STRONGEST AREA: Take your pick. CMU returns two experienced tailbacks and has four returning starters on line. But the strongest area looks like the passing game because LeFevour has two of his favorite targets back. Brown and Anderson combined to catch 192 passes for 2,135 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. And there is great depth at receiver, as well.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There aren't too many holes on this side of the ball, but the lack of experience at tight end sticks out the most. Then again, tight end isn't that big a part of the offense.
OVERVIEW: The Chippewas return eight starters from an offense that averaged 34.8 points per game last year to lead the MAC and rank 20th in the nation. Five of the returning players earned all-conference honors; that figure moves to six if you include Brown's first-team selection as a return specialist. CMU is particularly dangerous at the skill positions, with LeFevour throwing to a receiving corps that features two 1,000-yard receivers in Anderson and Brown. LeFevour threw for 3,652 yards and ran for another 1,122. When LeFevour isn't carrying the ball himself, he hands it to Ontario Sneed or Justin Hoskins, who combined for 1,178 yards and 16 touchdowns. They will work behind a line anchored by four-year starter Andrew Hartline at tackle.
THE SCHEME: The Chippewas use a base 4-3.
STAR POWER: Junior end Frank Zombo had 7.5 sacks last season; he recorded six of those in the final seven games of the season. Zombo also finished the season with 62 tackles, an unusually high total for a defensive end.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Mike Petrucci has a legitimate chance to win a starting job at outside linebacker, where the Chippewas must find someone to replace first-team all-MAC selections Ike Brown and Red Keith.
IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore linebacker Nick Bellore had 102 tackles last season, but he was overshadowed by Ike Brown and Red Keith. Now that those two all-conference performers have departed, Bellore must produce more and play at an All-MAC level if the Chippewas are going to show any improvement on defense.
STRONGEST AREA: The return of Zombo and nose tackle Casey Droscha gives the Chippewas plenty of experience on the line. Droscha had 52 tackles last season, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage. The front four helped Central Michigan lead the MAC in run defense last season, though the Chippewas ranked only 58th in the nation in that category.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Central Michigan has to do a better job of defending the pass. Opponents threw for an average of 303.5 yards per game last season; Rice was the only I-A team to allow more passing yards. Three starters return in the secondary, but they obviously must play better.
OVERVIEW: The good news is that Central Michigan returns seven starters. The bad news is they're returning from a unit that ranked 107th in pass-efficiency defense, 110th in total defense, 112th in scoring defense and 119th in pass defense. Central Michigan allowed at least 30 points in 11 of its 13 games, and six of the Chippewas' opponents broke the 40-point mark. The Chippewas are hoping to get more stability in the secondary after injuries forced nine defensive backs to make at least one start last season. More bad news: The only three Chippewas on defense to earn all-conference honors last season have departed.
Brown gives Central Michigan one of the nation's most dangerous return men. Brown gained 2,267 all-purpose yards last season to set a Division I-A freshman record. He ranked 30th in the nation in kickoff-return average (26.2) and also averaged nearly 11 yards per punt return. Andrew Aguila set a school record last year with 60 extra points, but he also was only 9-for-14 on field-goal attempts, including just 3-for-7 from at least 30 yards. CMU must find a punter to replace the departed Tony Mikulec. Sophomore Brett Hartmann is the most likely candidate. Whoever ends up winning the job, the Chippewas must improve their punt coverage as a whole after ranking 97th in the nation in net punting.
Jones did well enough in his first season as coach to earn a five-year contract extension after the season. Jones, a former Central Michigan offensive coordinator, made sure the Chippewas remained as productive on that side of the ball after Kelly left for Cincinnati. No assistants left during the offseason, the first time in more than a decade that Central Michigan has returned its entire coaching staff. That staff features offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and defensive coordinator Tim Banks. Bajakian also serves as quarterbacks coach and deserves part of the credit for LeFevour's emergence. Banks is hoping for better luck in his second season as defensive coordinator after injuries forced him to start 19 players on defense last season.
The non-conference schedule again features plenty of challenges with road games against Georgia, Purdue and Indiana. The Chippewas should find themselves atop the MAC standings early in the season because three of their first four conference games are at home, but they'll have to stock up on wins early before finishing the regular season with four road games in their final five contests. The Nov. 19 home game with Ball State could end up determining whether the Chippewas return to the MAC Championship Game.
A potent offense should make the Chippewas one of the nation's most fun teams to watch, but their chances of success depend on whether they get any improvement from their defense. If the defense doesn't get any better, Central Michigan probably barely finishes above .500 again and struggles to reach a bowl. If the defense is merely respectable, though, Central Michigan should capture its third consecutive MAC title and approach its 10-4 form of 2007. We're guessing the defense plays well enough that a 9-5 or 10-4 record seems likely.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.