Top 50 Countdown: No. 50 Central Michigan

Coach: Butch Jones | Staff
In 2006: 10-4, 7-1 MAC. Beat Middle Tennessee State, 31-14, in Motor City Bowl
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 7
Key losses: LT Joe Staley, C Drew Mormino, WR/PR Damien Linson, WR Obed Cetoute DE Dan Bazuin, LB Doug Kress, CB Pacino Horne
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Brian Brunner won't want to hear it, but the concussion he sustained in the opener against Boston College might have been the best thing that happened to the Central Michigan offense. The injury to Brunner opened the door for redshirt freshman Dan LeFevour, who set single-season passing records for the school on the way to the MAC championship. In 2007, LeFevour will have enough of his weapons back to stage a repeat of '06. Ontario Sneed, who ran for 764 yards and had 415 receiving yards last year, also returns.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN TOP 10
Quarterback Dan LeFevour returns to lead the Chippewas' offense.

1. QB Dan LeFevour
2. LB Red Keith
3. OT Andrew Hartline
4. WR Bryan Anderson
5. LB Ike Brown
6. DT Steven Friend
7. RB Ontario Sneed
8. OG Eric Tunney
9. P Tony Mikulec
10. S Calvin Hissong
Best player: LeFevour. He continued the tradition of impressive MAC quarterbacks by leading Central Michigan to its first bowl game since 1994. Passing for 3,031 yards and running for 521, LeFevour ran the MAC's best offense as a redshirt freshman. He can credit some of his success to left tackle Joe Staley, a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Most underrated: OT Andrew Hartline. Staley could soon have a linemate with him in the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 297-pound junior has started 25 games at right tackle in his first two years and could anchor the Chippewas' line at left tackle in 2007.

Must step up: WR Justin Gardner. Freshman Bryan Anderson was LeFevour's top option last year. Anderson had 73 receptions and 867 receiving yards, but Central Michigan's spread offense demands several receivers who can be a threat. That will be especially important following the departures of Obed Cetoute and Damien Linson - who had at least 800 receiving yards the last two years. Gardner caught 36 passes for 471 yards, but he should have a more active role as a senior this year.

Shoes to fill: Staley. The offense ran well with a first-round NFL Draft pick at left tackle in Staley. Either Hartline or junior Greg Wojt will try to fill his shoes.

Impact newcomer: TEs Rocky Weaver or J.J. Watt. The starting tight end position could go to a true freshman in the fall. Watt was a Minnesota commitment before the Gophers fired head coach Glen Mason.

Position battle: Running back. Sneed is a key part of the Chippewas' offense. He has compiled 2,737 rushing and receiving yards in the last two years. His rushing totals took a hit last year from 1,065 yards to 764 in part because of injury and the emergence of LeFevour as a dual-threat. Sneed is also feeling the pressure from his backups. Notre Dame transfer Justin Hoskins is eligible this season. Sophomore Marcel Archer and redshirt freshman Carl Volny are also pushing for carries.

New in 2007: Butch Jones returns to Central Michigan from West Virginia, where he was wide receivers coach under Rich Rodriguez. The spread offense that worked so well under Brian Kelly will remain, but Jones will add some of the elements from West Virginia's rushing attack in the process.

Grade the units:
QB: B-plus. LeFevour ran the offense to perfection last year, but will have to avoid a sophomore slump to keep Central Michigan on top of the MAC.
RB: B. Sneed's rushing totals dropped last year, but he's still a major threat in the offense with 52 receptions and seven receiving touchdowns last year. With Hoskins and Volny playing this year, the position will also have some depth.
WR: B-minus. Anderson's freshman season was overshadowed by LeFevour's, but each one owes his success to the other. Anderson is back, but the Chippewas will have to replace two other starters in their spread offense.
OL: C-minus. Staley and center Drew Mormino have gone to the NFL, but All-MAC second-teamers Hartline and Eric Tunney remain. Center Mike Decker will be moving from guard, while Hartline and Tunney might move from the right to left side - meaning there could be a change at every line spot.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: The Chippewas defense didn't quite keep up with the offense, and it could be even more difficult this year. Central Michigan was fifth in the MAC in scoring defense and eighth in the conference in total defense - and that was with defensive end Dan Bazuin. A second-round draft pick, Bazuin had 26.5 sacks in his final two seasons. The linebackers and secondary have plenty of experience, but the Chippewas will be hard-pressed to replace Bazuin and fellow starting end Mike Ogle.

Central Michigan Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Kansas
Sept. 8 Toledo
Sept. 15 at Purdue
Sept. 22 North Dakota State
Sept. 29 Northern Illinois
Oct. 6 at Ball State
Oct. 13 Army
Oct. 20 at Clemson
Oct. 27 at Kent State
Nov. 6 at Western Michigan
Nov. 17 Eastern Michigan
Nov. 23 at Akron
Best player: LB Red Keith. Keith is a leader on the Central Michigan defense. The middle linebacker had 127 tackles last year giving him two years of triple-digit tackles. No other returning Central Michigan defender has more than 66 stops.

Most underrated: LB Ike Brown. Brown might have been Central Michigan's fourth draft pick last year had he been healthy. However, Brown's season ended after a knee injury in the second game of the season. He was second-team All-MAC in 2005, but the outside linebacker could make a big impression now that he's healthy.

Must step up: DEs Larry Knight and Frank Zombo. The sophomores played as reserves last year, but are the front-runners to replace Bazuin and Ogle. Central Michigan was eighth in the MAC in pass defense last year, a ranking that could be boosted with an improved pass rush.

Shoes to fill: Bazuin. A former MAC defensive player of the year, Bazuin led the Chippewas defense for the last four seasons. His production and experience will be missed.

Impact newcomer: LB Nick Bellore. The true freshman enrolled early and filled in for Keith at middle linebacker at times during the spring. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound Whitefish Bay (Wis.) grad should be Keith's top backup.

New in 2007: Like the offense, Central Michigan's defense should remain similar to the base 4-3 run by last year's coaching staff. The challenge will be filling the shoes of Bazuin.

Grade the units:
DL: C. Even with Bazuin, Central Michigan struggled against the pass. Without him, the Chippewas will look to two sophomore ends for answers. The interior of tackles Friend and Casey Droscha will have to anchor the line this year.
LB: B-plus. The defense is led by the middle linebacker Keith. Starter Doug Kress is gone, but Central Michigan will get Ike Brown, an All-MAC second-teamer in 2005, back from a knee injury that knocked him out of last season.
DB: B-minus. The Chippewas return three starters in a secondary that ranked 10th in the MAC in pass defense. New starting cornerback Chaz West started in the MAC Championship Game and Motor City Bowl last year.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Punter Tony Mikulec remains a steady special teams option after being named second-team All-MAC last year. Brett Hartmann is set to be the new kicker with Rick Albreski gone. Central Michigan will have to replace Damien Linson, who was the only Chippewa to return a punt for a touchdown since 1983. However, he averaged only 5.6 yards per return last year.

Best player: Mikulec. The four-year starter was second in the conference with an average of 42 yards per punt. He landed 20 inside the 20-yard line.

Grade the units:
K: Incomplete. Hartmann handled kickoffs near the end of last year, but his field-goal accuracy was in question. Kicking 45- and 46-yard field goals in the spring game helped ease some worries.
P: A. Mikulec is one of the best punters in the conference.
KR: B. Eric Fraser was a solid option last year after returning 25 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards.
PR: Incomplete. With Linson gone, Central Michigan rotated returners during the spring. Senior Jemmy Jasmin and sophomore Duane Brooks are leading the race to replace him in the fall.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Butch Jones returned to Central Michigan after two seasons as wide receivers coach under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Jones is familiar with the program, serving as an assistant in Mount Pleasant from 1998-2004. In his first year as offensive coordinator at CMU in 2001, the offense jumped from 12.5 points per game to 22.8. He has assembled a staff of former Central Michigan players and coaches, along with a couple of outsiders who have been successful elsewhere.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
With many of the key parts returning from last season, Central Michigan will be a favorite to repeat as MAC champions. The Chippewas though have to replace two first-day NFL Draft picks (OT Joe Staley, DE Daniel Bazuin) that were vital to their success last year.

A return to the MAC title game and Motor City Bowl is an attainable task. If that does not happen, the Chippewas should still be a candidate for one of the MAC's other two bowl bids.
Grade the coaches:
Head coach: Incomplete. All indications so far are that the Jones hire will be a good one for the Chippewas. His familiarity with the program and the spread offense makes the transition from former coach Brian Kelly easier. However, Jones is a first-time head coach and has not been a coordinator since 2004.
Offense: Incomplete. New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is short on experience in his first season as a college coordinator. However, he does have a Super Bowl ring albeit for a runner-up. He was an offensive quality control assistant with the Chicago Bears last year. He has already worked with Jones as quarterbacks coach at Central Michigan from 2002-03.
Defense: Incomplete. Like his head coach and offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator Tim Banks is new to the position. However, he has an impressive track record. He spent three seasons as inside linebackers coach at Maryland, where he coached ACC Defensive Player of the Year D'Qwell Jackson. Special teams coordinator and safeties coach Mike Kolakowski is the veteran of the staff with 27 years of experience, including six seasons at MAC rival Ohio.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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