2006 MAC Spring Lookaheads

Posted Feb 22, 2006

Before spring ball 2006, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each MAC team.

By Pete Fiutak 

East Division
    Spring practice starts March 4, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... What can you do for an encore? After winning the MAC title on a miracle play in the final moments, Akron and head coach J.D. Brookhart have a tough act to follow and will now be the hunted in the East. Outside of WR Domenik Hixon and RB Brett Biggs, there aren't any irreplaceable losses meaning the Zips have no excuse not to be in the thick of things again.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. Brian White was an active inside presence for the MAC's second best defense. There isn't a lot of size returning up front outside of Kiki Gonzales, so there isn't room for a lot of mistakes from the front six throughout the spring.
Spring attitude... Win it again. QB Luke Getsy will be on the short list for MAC Player of the Year honors, while enough talent returns on both sides of the ball to hope for a repeat of last year. However, it was an inconsistent season with losses to Army and Ball State, so winning the games they're supposed to is a must.

Bowling Green    Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... How will the offense keep going? Bowling Green has been a yardage and point scoring machine over the last few years, but the program could take a major step back this year after losing the firepower of QB Omar Jacobs and receivers Steve Sanders and Charles Sharon. Just as important is figuring out the run defense after an awful 2005 and with the loss of LB Teddy Piepkow and tackles Mike Thaler and Monte Cooley.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Anthony Turner got a little time when Jacobs was hurt and wasn't bad completing 52 of 85 passes for 492 yards and two touchdowns, but he threw four interceptions and failed to do much with the offense with the Falcons scoring 14 in a home blowout loss to Western Michigan, 14 in the home loss to Akron and 24 in the win over woeful Kent State. He adds more mobility than Jacobs, but he has to prove he can put points on the board.
Spring attitude... Improve the defense. Much will be made about the offense and keeping the train running, but the Falcons failed last year because of the poor defense that allowed 380 yards and close to 28 points per game. If they can get tougher both in running on offense and stopping the run on defense, it'll take the pressure off the offense.

The big spring question is ... What will the big changes be right away under new head coach Turner Gill? Offense, and a lot more of it. Under former head coach Jim Hofher, the defense was the main emphasis with a decent, veteran group that did all it could considering the offense was one of the worst in America. Gill's first order of business will be to settle on a quarterback and work hard on improving an attack that averaged 279 yards and ten points per game.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Drew Willy was thrown to the wolves as a freshman and struggled mightily with 12 interceptions and six touchdown passes in his ten appearances. He's not a pure runner, but he isn't afraid to take off when he has to. If he's not the answer early on this spring, it will take all off-season to make the improvements Gill would like.
Spring attitude... Figure out who can play. The defense will be worse, the offense can't be any worse, and Buffalo will once again be picked to finish at or near the basement. Gill has a long way to go before his program will challenge for the MAC title, so he and his staff have to figure out all spring who the players are to develop for the future.

Kent State    Spring practice starts March 1, Spring Game TBD
The big spring question is ... Can the team find any semblance of a running game? The Golden Flashes weren't just bad running the ball, they weren't just the worst in the nation, they were beyond awful averaging 45.91 yards per game. The next worst rushing team in college football, Ole Miss, averaged over 73 yards per game. Being one-dimensional is one thing, but that one dimension has to be far better than the Kent State passing game was last year.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. The pressure will not only be on the offensive line to open more holes, but it'll be on sophomores Linwood Jenkins and Jerry Flowers to produce more. Flowers is a quick, speedy back who needs to bring his average up from the 3.2 per carry he ran for last year. Jenkins came on over the final two games rushing for 95 yards, and now he has to add more pop
Spring attitude... Expect a big turnaround. Things can't be any worse than last year's 1-10 campaign with the only win coming over SE Missouri State. 19 starters return including quarterbacks Michael Machen and Jon Brown so the Golden Flashes have to hope that all the returning experience will mean more production on both sides of the ball.

Miami University  
The big spring question is ... Can the RedHawks get their groove back? This was the MAC's most talented team last year, but it couldn't come up with a clutch win when it needed to. Now there's rebuilding to do on both sides of the ball hurt most by the loss of the linebacking corps, QB Josh Betts, WR Martin Nance, and the key players on the offensive line. The season won't be a disaster, but there's a lot of work to ahead this off-season.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. With the losses at linebacker, the tackles have to shine if the RedHawks are only going to allow 140 rushing yards per game again. Are the youngsters ready? Miami loses starting experienced, but gains size up front with junior-to-be Otto Linwood checking in at 306 pounds and sophomore Ryan Redman also pushing 300.
Spring attitude... Let the young guys shine. Miami loses some big-time star power on both sides of the ball, so there will be plenty of opportunities for several new players to make their mark. This spring is vital to seeing whether or not the team can go from being a talented disappointment to a contender for the MAC title.

Ohio    Spring practice starts March 27, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Will Frank Solich and his coaching staff be able to make the offense more effective in year two? Solich was going to run the ball from the get-go, but the attack only average 174 rushing yards per game and was horrific throwing it averaging a MAC worst 118 yards per outing. Kalvin McRae is an excellent back to work an offense around and Austen Everson is an experienced quarterback, but there has to be a bit more balance, or else there has to be far more from the ground game.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. With 27 games of experience, Everson has to improve on his accuracy. The Bobcats won't ever wing it all over the field with Solich at the helm, but the passing game needs to at least be efficient. After finishing last year 118th in the nation in passing efficiency, Ohio has to start to complete more passes meaning Everson has to be better after completing 105 of 220 for 1151 yards with four touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. 
Spring attitude... This could be the East's biggest sleeper. With eight starters returning on each side of the ball, and the offense sure to be a little better only because of experience, Ohio has as good a chance as anyone else in the light MAC East to win the conference title. There's a lot of work to be done with major improvements needed, but the potential is there for a great year.

West Division
Ball State
    Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Is the team going to be strong now that it doesn't have to deal with suspensions? The 2005 Cardinal season struggled to get off the ground thanks to several key suspensions for off-the-field problems, but BSU started to look good once everyone came back winning three of the final four games, with the only loss coming in overtime to Central Michigan, including wins over MAC title combatants Northern Illinois and Akron. There has to be a feel that this could be a good year now that the team will be together from the start.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Charles Wynn's suspension hurt the most last year. Even though he missed three games, he still led the team with 533 yards and three touchdowns while catching 26 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown. With Wynn out of the picture this year, it'll be up to B.J. Hill to be the all-around back Wynn was to give the offense some help for QB Joey Lynch.
Spring attitude... Build on the momentum. Lynch should by one of the league's best quarterbacks, and just about everyone returns on defense. Fine, so the D finished dead last in the MAC in most major categories, but there's at least a lot of experience. After all the adversity the team went through last year, 2006 should be a piece of cake.

Central Michigan 
The big spring question is ... Can the offense continue to shine without QB Kent Smith and top receiver Justin Harper? The receiving corps will be fine with Daniel Linson and big Obed Cetoute coming back, and the running game will be more than fine thanks to Ontario Sneed, but the offense needs to replace Smith, who was arguably the league's best quarterback last year. Brian Brunner is a big passer, but can he run like Smith did?
The most important position to watch is ... Safety. Outside of quarterback, safety is the biggest issue losing starters Martin Maxwell and Pacino Horne. On the plus side, likely new starters Ryan Strehl and Curtis Cutts add far more size to the mix, and things can't be much worse for a pass defense that allowed 281 yards per game.
Spring attitude... Win the West. After going 6-5 last year with tough losses to Indiana, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan that could've easily gone the other way, the sky's the limit this season if the quarterback situation is solid going into fall practice. The Chippewas, in the third year under head coach Brian Kelly, should make another big leap and at least be in the thick of the race.

Eastern Michigan   
The big spring question is ... Can EMU make another positive step on defense? The Eagles, after years of being a doormat for any offense that showed up, got much tighter last season. The run defense wasn't a prize, but it was still better than it was over previous seasons. If they have any hope of coming up with a winning season and not getting lost in the West shuffle, the defense has to be even better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Matt Bohnet didn't have quite the season expected of him, but he was a good leader who had an efficient year throwing for 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Tyler Jones played well in Bohnet's place against Miami University completing 19 of 25 passes for 135 yards and two scores, and he's a better runner. The faster Jones can shine, the better the chance EMU has of being relevant.
Spring attitude... Learn how to win the close ones. The Eagles lost three games last year by a total of five points and lost to Western Michigan by eight in a shootout. Had they pulled out three of those four, they would've been 7-4. General improvement on both sides of the ball is needed, but most importantly, the team needs to figure out how to do one thing really, really well when games get tight.

Northern Illinois    Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 2
The big spring question is ... How many times can the program have its heart broken? Every year seems to be Joe Novak's year to win the MAC title, and every year team blows it in crushing fashion. The secondary had a hard time coming up with a key stop, and the team has to win all the games it's supposed to, but the pieces are all there to be the overwhelming favorite to win the MAC title.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Guard Ben Lueck, center Brian Van Acker, guard Jake Ebenhoch and tackle George Daglas helped form the MAC's top offensive line. Star tackle Doug Free returns, but there's a lot of big, talented holes to fill up front to pave the way for star RB Garrett Wolfe.
Spring attitude... Just get in position again. The Huskies will one day get all the right breaks, but they also have to make their own by winning the games they absolutely have to. Outside of issues on the offensive line and, potentially, linebacker, this is a rock solid group more than good enough to get back to the MAC title game. As long as there aren't any lapses in concentration, like there was last year in a 31-17 home loss to Ball State, things should be just fine.

Toledo    Spring practice starts March 18, Spring Game April 14
The big spring question is ... Can Toledo keep up its dominance? Last year might not have been a MAC title season, but a crushing 45-13 GMAC Bowl blowout of UTEP, and 55 wins since 2000, have helped make this the league's best and most consistent program. Northern Illinois finally broke its hex over the Rockets last year, and the West appears to be even better this season, so it'll be hard to stay at such a high level considering ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Cornerback and running back will also receive plenty of attention this spring, but the big focus will be on Clint Cochran as he tries to take over for Bruce Gradkowski. All Gradkowski did was play in 50 games, throw for 9,225 yards with 85 touchdowns and only 27 interceptions, complete 68% of his passes, and rush for 1,018 yards and 14 touchdowns. Cochran was thrown into the fire at the last second against Fresno State, and while he wasn't horrible, the Rockets lost 44-14.
Spring attitude... Keep the defense nasty. Toledo always finds ways to generate offense under head coach Tom Amstutz, but it was the defense that carried the 2005 season leading the MAC in total defense and scoring defense while finishing second against the run and fourth against the pass. Only four players are gone off the defensive two-deep, so there's a lot to get excited about.

Western Michigan    Spring practice starts March 11, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Will experience mean improvement on defense? WMU had few problems cranking out points in bunches last year averaging 36 points per MAC game before 42-7 debacle to end the season at Northern Illinois, but the defense was horrendous finishing 118th in the nation in pass defense while allowing over 31 points per game. Ten starters returns, so there has to be hope for a big turnaround.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. The quarterback situation will work itself out with Ryan Cubit getting another year of eligibility after getting hurt last year and somehow, WR Greg Jennings and TE Tony Scheffler will be replaced, but keeping the running game going without Trovon Riley will be the key to the offense. Mark Bonds has speed and experience tearing off 119 yards in the season opener at Virginia, but he has to prove he can handle the workload and become more of a receiver.
Spring attitude... If the team can go from 1-10 to 7-4 in one year under head coach Bill Cubit, where can it go in year two? Big replacements need to be made on the offensive line and receiver, while the defense has ten miles to go before it becomes mediocre, but there's a lot to work with and plenty of reasons to think WMU can be in the thick of the MAC title chase up until the end.


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