Titus Davis and Thomas Rawls leads way for Chippewas
The next stop in the MAC is with the Central Michigan Chippewas. Nate Schneider of the Morning Sun took some time with NFLDraftGM to talk about a few players contributing to the Chippewas success and those players possible leap to the NFL.
NS: The Central Michigan offense is in much better shape whenever senior wide receiver Titus Davis and senior running back Thomas Rawls have been on the field. Davis missed three games with a knee injury suffered in the season opener and it seriously impacted the CMU passing game as redshirt sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush did not have his one proven deep threat up the field. The most yards Rush threw for in the three games Davis was out was 183. Yet since Davis returned for the Toledo game, it has been a far more dynamic Chippewas offense. Davis has 37 catches for 605 yards and five TDs in six games played. His last touchdown reception at Buffalo was not only the game-winning score but also broke the CMU record for career TD receptions as he now has 29. When he is on the field, CMU is a much more explosive offense.
As for Rawls, his season was interrupted for a couple games due to suspension following his arrest in a purse-snatching incident that took place prior to his arrival at Central Michigan. A graduate transfer from the University of Michigan, Rawls has dominated when on the field as entering the Buffalo game he was fifth in the nation in rushing yards (1,007 yards on 185 carries). But Rawls left the game at Buffalo with a knee injury after his third carry and his status remains in doubt going into this weekend. Rawls is the most physical running back in the Mid-American Conference and his punishing style wears defenses down as games progress. When Rawls and Davis are both in the lineup, it gives Central Michigan one of the most high-powered attacks in the Mid-American Conference.
Defensively, the Chippewas have really turned a corner this year in their third season using a 4-2-5 scheme. Central Michigan is second in the MAC in points allowed per game (23.6) and atop the conference by a fairly wide margin in total defense (338.2 per game). Leading the way are a couple seniors in the middle of the defense in defensive tackle Leterrius Walton and linebacker Justin Cherocci. Walton, who comes in at about 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, is a force to be reckoned with. He clogs up the middle against the run and even though the stats don’t always show it because of the position he plays, Walton makes a big difference. He has five quarterback hits and a couple pass breakups as well. Cherocci is a tackling machine as he led the MAC in tackles last year and has 87 stops this season with the next-closest on CMU coming in at 51. As a whole, the Chippewas defense is playing at a high level and keeping them in any game they play. They returned nine starters from 2013 and it shows on the field.
J: Could you name 3 or more players on each side of the ball that have really blossomed this year? What about this season contributed to the blossoming?
NS: Rawls is one player who has really blossomed as he is someone who was not given a chance to shine at Michigan. He had a couple big games last year and looked primed to assume a bigger role in 2013, but after one 3-yard carry that netted a TD in last year’s opener (against CMU no less) Rawls was not given another rushing attempt the rest of the season. Rawls had been recruited heavily by Central Michigan out of Flint Northern High School, so when he decided to transfer it was a no-brainer Mount Pleasant would be his destination. While everyone expected Rawls to be a big help, no one expected it to be to this extent. He had back-to-back 40-carry games against Ohio and Northern Illinois to send the Chippewas to two big wins. He’s been a valuable workhorse and has shown maturity since his mistake although there has been plenty of controversy about the university’s decision to allow him to return to the football field so quickly.
Also on the offensive side, junior wide receiver Jesse Kroll picked up a lot of slack when Davis was injured. He is second on the team with 26 catches for 415 yards and four TDs. He is a 6-foot-3 and 214-pound target, making him a strong end zone threat. Kroll has dealt with season-ending injuries the last two years so he is finally able to show what he is capable of when healthy. Another is backup sophomore running back Martez Walker, who has been stuck behind Rawls most of the season but had a big second half against Kansas and had a strong game at Buffalo following Rawls’ injury. He isn’t all the way there and he is running behind an offensive line that hasn’t really gelled the way it was expected, but Walker is one to watch out for the next couple years.
Redshirt sophomore safety Tony Annese is another who has become a ball hawk for CMU. He is currently second on the team with 51 tackles while also leading Central Michigan with nine pass breakups and three interceptions. Annese’s emergence began with the last three games of the 2013 season when he was promoted to the starting lineup. He had 34-yard interception returns for touchdowns his first two starts and has grown tremendously since then with his all-around game. Thomas Greer is a junior starting cornerback who also started last year, but he is taking his game to the next level this season. He has been CMU’s most consistent cornerback and came through with a big interception return for a score at Purdue to get the ball rolling in that win. He has good size at his position at 6-1 and 203. Thirdly, sophomore defensive end Joe Ostman was the only CMU freshman a year ago to not redshirt. He is starting this year and is third on the defense with 47 tackles. He was a two-time state champion wrestler in high school and has a motor that cannot be taught. Ostman leads Central Michigan with eight tackles for loss and finds his way into the backfield to disrupt plays regularly.
J: Building on the previous question, do you see players who could potentially play at the next level? Why? What about their attributes and skill sets leads you to think that way?
NS: Davis will play at the next level. His speed and ability to get open separate him from other college wide receivers and I believe that will translate to the NFL. He has a knack for finding the end zone and creating big plays. NFL teams are taking notice. Walton is definitely on the NFL radar as well. He lost 20 pounds in the offseason and it has made him far more agile without losing any strength. Scouts have been looking at him closely. Rawls has to be at least in the discussion, being the fifth-leading rusher in the nation just a week ago despite missing two games. He runs with ferociousness and has great vision, but does not have top end speed. He could probably be a useful player at the pro level, although he will certainly have a lot of questions to ask about the off-the-field incident that led to his suspension.
J: What about the system in place offensively and defensively prepares these players to possibly make the transition to the next level?
NS: On the offensive side, Central Michigan runs a pro style scheme under head coach Dan Enos so players coming out of the system are well-equipped to handle NFL playbooks. It is a complicated system and it takes quite a while to get a handle on it. Eric Fisher has talked about it being easier to make the transition to the Chiefs because of what was being run at CMU. The scheme has to be beneficial in some ways.
On the flipside, the 4-2-5 defense could be seen as a detriment since you don’t see that style run much at all in the NFL. But Jahleel Addae is starting for the San Diego Chargers now and he was part of the 2012 CMU defense, so it is certainly possible. I wouldn’t imagine it being an issue for defensive linemen or defensive backs, but it might be a more difficult adjustment for linebackers such as Cherocci who are used to a two-linebacker scheme.
J: Biggest surprise at the mid point of the season from players around the league positive or negative, and teams both positive and negative?
NS: I’d have to say the biggest surprise is Western Michigan freshman running back Jarvion Franklin. He has been a workhorse for the Broncos but has yet to show signs of wearing down. He carried the ball 37 times at Bowling Green and 35 at Ohio these last two weeks, so it will be interesting to see what he still has in the tank when Western Michigan comes to Mount Pleasant Nov. 22. Franklin has been a big part of helping the Broncos become one of the bigger positive surprises in the MAC. One year after winning just one game and WMU is staring at a possible bowl bid. The biggest negative as far as players go has probably been with Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson and Toledo QB Phillip Ely both going down with season-ending injuries in September. The Falcons have been unable to recover after being picked as preseason favorites in the MAC East, while the Rockets have done a remarkable job of bouncing back from their setback.
J: How does the team look next year?
NS: Next year will be interesting for CMU due to the departure of Davis and Rawls. There are players behind them capable of stepping up, but it is hard to see them matching that level of production. And really, these next three games will be interesting for Central Michigan and will dictate a lot of what happens next year. If the Chippewas were to lose one or two of these remaining games and finish 7-5 or 6-6 with no bowl bid, there could be a coaching change. That would have a dramatic impact on the outlook of next year’s CMU team.
I want to thank Nate Schneider for taking a moment with NFLDraftGM. If you want more about the Chippewas and Nate you can follow him on twitter @natejschneider. You can go to TheMorningSun.com to follow along with the Chippewas season.