Central Michigan opens up spring football practice this Tuesday in what figures to be a vital year for the Chippewas program. After a four year stretch that saw CMU go 38-17 with four straight Mid-American Conference Championships and four consecutive bowl games, they stumbled to a 3-9 record in Dan Enos's first year. While the coaching change and heavy personnel losses played major roles in CMU's disappointing 2010 season, those excuses won't be available in 2011, and expectations will be much higher in Enos's second season with the Chippewas.
With that in mind, we take a look at five key storylines to keep an eye on as the Chippewas officially start a new chapter:
1) Has the offense improved and developed?
-Chippewa fans were up in arms when spread oriented Butch Jones took his high octane offense to Cincinnati and CMU turned to Michigan State assistant Dan Enos as his replacement. Although Enos exhausted his preseason explanation that CMU would be a "multiple set offense", everyone in Mount Pleasant feared for a Power I attack that saw the Chippewas run up the middle 50 times a game. That happened to be further from the truth as CMU finished the season ranked #3 in the MAC in total offense behind varied offensive formations. But the CMU offense struggled to run the ball effectively and ranked dead last in the MAC in turnover margin. And lest is be forgotten, the Chippewas 2010 spring game finished in a 3-0 victory for the White team and offered foreshadowing for many of CMU's offensive problems during the season. This season, pundits will be looking at the team to see if they are more comfortable in Enos's offense in their second year and what strides they have made after averaging 31.3 points per game over their final three games.
2) Has quarterback Ryan Radcliff taken the next step?
-Perhaps no player was more heavily scrutinized last season redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Radcliff. In his first year starting and following in the footsteps of one of the greatest quarterbacks in MAC history in Dan LeFevour, Radcliff was inconsistent and failed to deliver in the most important statistic, wins. Despite his up and down play, Radcliff finished the season 3,358 yards passing, 17 touchdowns and a 60% completion percentage. On the flip side, he also threw 17 interceptions and was pulled midway in a 33-7 loss to Northern Illinois. For CMU as a team to take that next step, Radcliff will have to cut down on his turnovers and improve his playmaking ability late in games. Described as a gunslinger of sorts, it will be interesting to see what improvements his has made with a year under his belt now.
3) Who kicks and punts?
-Three different players attempted field goals for CMU in 2010, with the trio connecting on 10-20 attempts. Ironically enough, it was the guy kicking third last spring in David Harman who became the most effective, as he hit 9-12 attempts with all three of his misses coming from 40 yards or greater. The player who began the season as a starter, freshman Paul Mudgett, is no longer with the team, leaving CMU with an open competition between Harman and sophomore Richie Hogan, who went 0-3 in an injury riddled season. To make matters worse, CMU also loses starting punter Brett Hartmann and will be relying on junior college transfer Curtis Huge to assume the duties in his first season. Regardless of who earns the starting roles, the Chippewas will be looking for significant improvement in the field goal kicking department, and little drop-off from Huge as he takes over for Hartmann.
4) What redshirt freshman are ready to make an impact?
-Enos redshirted all but three members of his first recruiting class, and several of those players will be asked upon to take on larger roles. Tight ends Jarrett Fleming, Joe Sawicki and Caleb Southworth have all put on over 20 pounds since last season, and all three could vie for playing time after CMU was forced to move third string quarterback A.J. Westendorp to tight end last season due to depth issues. 6-foot-6 and 303 pound defensive tackle Leterrius Walton has the ideal physical tools to dominate on the defensive line, but was simply too raw as a true freshman. On the other side of the line, Kevin Henry will be expected to compete along the offensive line after making the transition from defensive end. While the list could keep going on for all 17 members of CMU's redshirt freshman class, it will be important to see how they have developed over the past year.
5) Where should the bar be placed for Alex Niznak?
-By now most of the people in the state of Michigan are aware of the on-field exploits of Ithaca quarterback Alex Niznak who shattered records en route to a Division 6 state championship. But, unlike many players, the 6-foot-3 and 225 pound freshman bypassed the rest of his senior year in high school to enroll at CMU less than a month winning a state title. Niznak has been on campus for two months now and will take part in spring practice, and there is no doubting he will be under the watchful eye of CMU coaches. Enos has stated that not redshirting the true freshman could be an option, and it figures to be an intriguing storyline to see just how close Ninak is to pushing the other quarterbacks.
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