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Mizzou-Central Michigan Q&A Preview with James Jimenez of Hustle Belt

Central Michigan was picked to finish fourth in the MAC West from the conference’s preseason poll, but with or without Jim McElwain, this Chippewa team could pose quite a Week 1 challenge for Missouri

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Central Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s game week! The Missouri Tigers open the 2021 season against the Central Michigan Chippewas on Saturday at 3 p.m. CST in COMO on the SEC Network. It’s certainly a game that the Tigers shouldn’t take lightly as CMU presents a respectable test for a MAC opponent.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Eli Drinkwitz pointed out that Central Michigan upset Oklahoma State on the road in 2016 and gave Miami (FL) all they could handle in 2019. So, this is a team that has the potential of pulling off some big time upsets.

To get a Central Michigan perspective, I talked it over with James Jimenez of Hustle Belt.

Sammy Stava: Jim McElwain enters year three at Central Michigan with an 11-9 record with the Chippewas, going 8-6 with a bowl berth in his first season, then 3-3 in a COVID shortened season last year. How has his tenure gone so far and what are his expectations at CMU?

James Jimenez: Coach McElwain has been a welcome addition to the CMU sidelines since he took over the program back in 2019. The Chippewas had been out in the football desert since the sudden and unexpected departure of head coach Dan Enos back in 2015 (and were in the football desert even while he was there.) After brief initial success with Jon Bonamego, it all fell apart very quickly, resulting in needed change. Coach Mac has brought a culture of accountability to Mount Pleasant which had been much needed for a while, and the results, as you mentioned, were immediate. Last season, though, was one Coach Mac has admitted to the media several times as an unforeseen struggle. They had greyshirted all their 2020 freshmen believing the season to be cancelled, only for it to start back up, leaving the Chips extremely shallow at most every position, resorting to cross-training several members of the team for emergencies. This year, as we’ll talk about in a minute, should be more or less a return to the normal expectation after a season most of us CMU faithful saw as more or less an aberration. As long as CMU is in the 7-9 win window, and in contention for the division and/or conference title, Coach Mac is doing his job.

Note: Here’s hoping all is well with Jim McElwain. It was announced on Wednesday that he has undergone surgery on his Appendicitis.

SS: Central Michigan was picked to finish fourth (out of six) teams in the MAC West from the preseason poll. Is that a fair projection or do you think this team has the ability to exceed some expectations and surprise some people?

JJ: It’s about where I would have expected CMU to be projected, honestly. WMU and Toledo are perpetual favorites on paper due to the sheer talent on the rosters on a year-to-year basis, while Ball State earned their place up at the top after a last-to-first run in 2020 (a la CMU’s division run in 2019.) CMU lost to all three of those teams in 2020, so it’s basically an assessment based on past performance. I do feel, however, that CMU is being unfairly assessed based on a 2020 which caught them in a bad place. Even with the loss of Kobe Lewis to a season-ending injury, they still have an excellent (if light on experience) stable of running backs which will give any defense problems, two all-MAC first-team receivers on the outside and one of the more elite defenses in the conference. If something goes wrong at the top of the division standings, CMU is in the catbird seat to make some noise.

SS: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses on this year’s Central Michigan team?

JJ: The strength of this team is in the run game on offense, and the pass rush on defense. CMU traditionally has one of the more talented running crews on a year-to-year basis, and 2020 was no different, finishing 16th in the NCAA with 1,308 yards (218.0 per game on average) and 16 touchdowns in the six-game season. Lew Nichols III will handle primary responsibilities after Lewis’ injury. Nichols was the change-of-pace back in 2020, earning MAC Freshman honors after gaining 508 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, as well as 10 receptions for 109 yards and a score over six games. He and fellow backs Darius Bracy (a former CB and option QB) and Marion Lukes should provide several different looks for the Chippewa offense which they can use to their advantage. On defense, CMU has one of the best havoc units in the country, with MAC co-defensive player of the year DE Troy Hairston (41 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) leading the charge. The depth they feature at the ends are especially scary, with former starter LaQuan Johnson (33 tackles, six sacks, 13 tackles for loss in 2019), 2020 starter Amir Siddiq (10 tackles, two sacks in six starts) and Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom (33 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles in 11 games) all expected to rotate.

The weaknesses for the team are at quarterback and pass defense.

I say quarterback is a weakness, but that’s only because there’s a lot of uncertainty there at present. CMU has listed three potential names at starter, and have been fairly mum about who they expect to take the snaps since the start of camps. At present, Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon, a former four-star prospect, is penciled in as starter and reports out of camp indicate he has the strongest deep arm of the stable, which opens up CMU’s vertical offense. Daniel Richardson, last year’s starter, is more of a dual-threat QB who performed admirably after being expected to be the backup prior to David Moore’s suspension for a banned substance (which first came down in 2019, only to be overturned at the conclusion of the 2020 season.) Then, there’s the mystery that is local boy Tyler Pape, a highly-talented QB who greyshirted in 2020 and will have five seasons of eligibility remaining. He’s reportedly made some good strides in camps to the point where he could seriously be considered for QB2 duties. QB has been an unsettled position since the departure of Cooper Rush in 2017, so this isn’t a new issue. Once CMU settles on a QB though, they’ll certainly be dangerous. The pass defense, on the other hand, has been a struggle since the dual departures of Sean Murphy-Bunting and Xavier Crawford in 2019, who are both currently rostered in the NFL. Last year’s unit was bottom 10 in the country, consistently getting gashed by RPO looks and routes predicated on running after the catch. Part of this was a lack of personnel; the Chips also lost freshman phenom Kyron McKinnie-Harper due to computer theft charges and his subsequent dismissal in the 2019 season, two other depth pieces to transfer in the offseason and one player (Bracy) converting to halfback, leaving CMU extremely thin at the corners for 2020. The linebackers, which include converted safety Troy Brown (more on him in a second), also were inexplicably bad in coverage down the middle in 2020, which didn’t help matters. The coaching staff has admitted that coverage was their weakest point in 2020, and have been working tirelessly to improve the defense’s skill, especially in man coverage, and emphasizing the importance of third down plays, which CMU also failed in covering. Will all that work result in a better defense? The short answer is: who knows? It’s still a shallow enough unit for several true and redshirt freshmen to be listed on the two-deeps, and safety Rollian Sturkey recently converted to corner to help make up numbers, so... yeah.

SS: How about a player on offense and defense that Mizzou fans will need to keep an eye on?

JJ: A couple of players to look out for? I’d point to Kalil Pimpleton on offense and Troy Brown Jr. on defense.

Pimpleton is the veritable Swiss Army Knife in the vein of Antonio Brown; he’s often depended upon as a jet option in motion, can play both slot and outside, and has even seen snaps at QB and RB. At a listed five-foot-nine, 175 lbs., he is a speedy, shifty option who must be marked at all times due to his athletic style of play. There’s perhaps no better tape to go back and watch on Pimpleton than his 2020 game vs. Western Michigan, where he picked up three touchdowns on seven carries for 108 yards, and picked up 42 yards on three receptions while also returning kicks and punts. His play single-handedly set the tone early and helped propel the Chips late in that game, even despite the loss. Oh, and you’ll have to look out if he lines up at QB. Recruited as an ATH, Pimpleton was a former QB at powerhouse HS program Muskegon. He’s a career 6-of-10 for 177 yards and one touchdown, with no interceptions.

Brown, a converted safety, has been a revelation at the outside backer spot since the 2019 season, getting named to the first-team all-MAC squad in both years as a starter. He’s undersized for a traditional LB, but don’t let that fool you; Brown has sideline-to-sideline speed and is great at mopping up in the open field, collecting 91 total tackles (75 solo) in 2019, and 42 tackles (31 solo) in six games last season. He’s versatile, adept both in rush and in coverage, with 4.5 sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups and one fumble forced in 2020. In 2019, he was the leader on the team with three interceptions, adding on two pass breakups to boot. He’s a do-everything man the CMU staff depends on to execute their 4-3 look, and it’ll be apparent why that is when he takes the field.

SS: How do you see this game playing out on Saturday? Have a final score prediction?

JJ: I’m not one for final scores, because college football is imperfect chaos, and there’s not really a particular point in trying to prognosticate something which can’t be quantified. (Which is all a fancy way of saying “nice try getting me to commit to a score.)

What I will say is I think this will be a bit of a feeling out atmosphere in the first half, as both teams will be trying out new things and getting a feel for their personnel with stakes attached. I’m especially interested in watching Jim McElwain return to the ESS EE SEE territory after his unceremonious firing from Florida, and how Eli Drinkwitz, who is a coach’s coach, will counter McElwain’s aggressive tendencies. However, I think Mizzou’s home field advantage and their talent will ultimately win out the day. Though, I think it could be fairly close if CMU comes out with their hair on fire.

Great stuff here from James, and a big thank you for his time on this. You can follow him and Hustle Belt on Twitter for all things Central Michigan this week.