2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the MAC

Posted Feb 22, 2007

Before spring ball 2007, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each MAC team.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 MAC Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - MAC


The early spring buzz ... The Zips came up with a solid pass defense last year allowing just 186 yards per game, but two key starters, CB Reggie Corner and SS Jason Nedd, are gone along with cornerback coach Aaron Alford, who left for Utah. The defense got some immediate help from one of the MAC's best recruiting classes, and it might be enough to make a difference after an inconsistent year.
The big spring question is ... Where will the running game be? Dennis Kennedy had his moments last year, most notably against NC State, but he and Andre Walker didn't get enough holes to run through behind a porous offensive line that had four senior starters. Improving the pass protection from the front five is also a must.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Luke Getsy was the main man for the last few years and one of the catalysts in the MAC title season of 2005. Carlton Jackson and Chris Jacquemain don't have any appreciable experience, but they're each exciting options with better mobility than Getsy.
Spring attitude... Win the East. In the far easier of the two divisions, it shouldn't take too much to improve by a few games and get back to the MAC title game for the second time in three years. Step one is to find the offense that died down the stretch scoring seven points in the final two games in make-or-break dates with Ohio and Western Michigan.

Bowling Green  
The early spring buzz ... No one wants to play the better teams from the WAC, and now Bowling Green is included ditching a high profile date with Boise State. Beyond scheduling, the biggest issue is the coaching staff that lost four assistants this off-season. Call this spring a major transition period.
The big spring question is ...
Will there be a bit offensive balance the other way? With Omar Jacobs at quarterback, the offense was pass-heavy with one of the nation's most dynamic air shows. After his ill-advised early departure to the NFL, the offense turned to more of an air attack with Anthony Turner, and for a time, Freddie Barnes. While that was fine, the offense became too one-dimensional. A little more oomph from the passing game would be nice.
The most important position to watch is ... Punter and kicker. The Falcons were abysmal in the kicking game with freshman Sean Ellis hitting just four of nine field goals and freshman Alonso Rojas, one of the nation's top punting recruits, struggling as the Falcons needed just 27.7 yards per kick, good for 118th in the nation. Both areas need to improve dramatically.
Spring attitude... Put the end of last season in the past. Losing five games to close out the year is one thing, but losing to Temple, along with three other teams that didn't finish with winning records, is another. The offense fizzled, the defense was never clutch, and the special teams are non-existent. Enough experience returns to expect an immediate turnaround.

Buffalo  Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The buck stops here when it comes to the offense this year. With the offensive coordinator job open after Gerald Carr was canned, head coach Turner Gill will take over the reins and handle the playcalling for the nation's 109th, and MAC's worst, offense. Helping the team will be former CFL head coach Danny Barrett who'll be an assistant head coach.
The big spring question is ... How will the team be better in year two under Gill? For one thing, it'll be more experienced. Ten starters return on defense while almost all the key players are back on offense including QB Drew Willy, who missed the final four games of last year. Spring ball is vital for the skill guys with the talent of the recruiting class, to show up this fall, at quarterback and running back.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive line. The front five got no consistent push for the ground game and got the quarterbacks killed by allowing a whopping 42 sacks. Jordan Jerrold was a true freshman at left tackles, while guards Ray Norell and Jeff Niedermier were sophomores. All have to use their experience to be far better.
Spring attitude... Just keep improving. There were moments last year when the team showed it could be halfway decent, even in losses to Bowling Green, Miami University and Ball State, but the offense needs to be far more consistent and the defense has to be night-and-day better. No one's expecting anything, so after winning just seven games in five years, the bar isn't exactly set high.

Kent State
The early spring buzz ... There's plenty of excitement around the program after starting off so hot last year before failing down the stretch. With the key starters back on offense and enough talent back on defense to expect improvement, Doug Martin might have the East's best team. Expect the Golden Flashes to be even faster and more athletic after this year's recruiting class.
The big spring question is ... Will the offense improve on the disaster that was the second half of last year. After getting shutout by Minnesota in the season opener, the Golden Flashes averaged close to 29 points a game over a six-game span. And then the team went into the tank scoring a total of 41 points over the final five games. Getting shut out by Virginia Tech is one thing, but not moving the ball against Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Ball State is another. The offense has to be far, far sharper, especially in the passing game, and that starts with a good spring.
The most important position to watch is ... Punter. KSU simply can't be as bad kicking the ball as it was last year. While freshman Jake Kilroy had a lousy year, he didn't get much help from the coverage units as the Golden Flashes finished 116th in the nation in net punting. Considering the offense isn't the type that can score from anywhere on the field, better field position is a must.
Spring attitude... Win the East. The team was in total command of the MAC East before collapsing. If KSU can beat the teams they're supposed to, and come up with two wins over the better league teams, it'll be playing for the MAC title game. If there's the type of improvement there was last year, there's reason to be excited.

Miami University   
The early spring buzz ... After a stunningly lousy year, Miami is expected to come back roaring with a veteran team that should come together at several key spots (offensive line, defensive line, running back) and should get some big-time help from the recruiting class. No MAC team got better quality in this year's haul.
The big spring question is ... Was last year an aberration or indication? The perennial MAC powerhouse was abysmal on the lines and only came up with wins over Buffalo and Bowling Green. However, there were several close calls losing five games by seven points or fewer, so for those who believe in the theory that experienced teams win close games, there's hope for a mega-turnaround. There's too much talent to be bad again.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. Dave DiFranco and Steve Sutter had a nightmare of a time in pass protection and didn't do much of anything for the running game. After a year of experience, the juniors-to-be have to be the bedrocks on the line and the difference makers for the offense. If the position isn't better, the offense won't be, either.
Spring attitude... Almost worst to first. Fine, so MU didn't finish in last place in the MAC East (Buffalo did), but it might as well have considering how bad last year was. With Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan off in the West, Miami can make a quick move in the East and win the division if it can start to win all the close games.

Ohio  Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 21    
The early spring buzz ... After being one of the surprise teams of 2006 winning the MAC East and going to the GMAC Bowl, the team loaded up on the type of offensive players who fit the Frank Solich system. With more help to give RB Kalvin McRae a few breaks, and reinforcements for the offensive line, the formula is the same for 2007. Run the ball well, get timely defense, and win the close games. There's no reason the Bobcats won't be among the favorites to win the East again.
The big spring question is ...
Will there be a wee bit of offensive balance this year? Pure running teams always say they want to throw more, and then they go back to what they know best. Ohio needs to be more effective in the passing attack, if nothing else, to have an option when things aren't going well. The MAC title loss and the GMAC Bowl proved that there has to be other options. Brad Bower is a better passer than Austen Everson was, but he'll get plenty of competition.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. Tackling machines Tyler Russ and Matt Muncy are gone along with starting strongside man Michael Graham. Since the linebackers are everything to the Ohio run defense, players like Lee Renfro, Michael Brown, Chris Hall and Taj Henley have to show this spring that they can step in and keep the overall production going.
Spring attitude... Win the East again. McRae is back and should be one of the front-runners for the MAC player of the year running behind three returning starters on the line. The defense loses all the linebackers and top corner T.J. Wright, but gets everyone else back. Anything less than a return trip to the title game will be a disappointment.

Temple   Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
While it might not be the Big East, Temple is back in a conference again getting the full-fledged status in the MAC East. It's a big step for a program that operates as a glacier's pace when it comes to improvement, and there's actual hope for things to get better in the relatively near future under second-year head man Al Golden. The recruiting class was surprisingly terrific to help the young, young, young team improve this year.
The big spring question is ... How will the coaching changes help the team? Golden had to play around with his staff this off-season and now should have the guys he wants in place. Former Bucknell defensive coordinator Jared Backus will take over the defensive line, while Kevin Gilbride, the some of the NFL assistant coach by the same name, will handle the running backs. This is a good staff from top to bottom, and now they have to quickly make all the young players better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Adam DiMichele and Vaughn Charlton each got thrown to the wolves last year with almost nothing in the way of consistent production. DiMichele is the number one guy this off-season, but star recruit Chester Stewart will get every chance to win the job this fall. The program needs a leader to build around, and finding one guy to stick with would be a plus.
Spring attitude... Keep improving. You don't win four games in four years without having to be patient through a rebuilding process. Nine starters return on defense and eight are back on offense, so with the good new prospects coming in, the program is getting better. Slowly. Just getting a few wins is a must to offer a little bit of hope that things are turning around.


Ball State   Spring Practice Begins: March 23  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
After winning three of the final four games last year, with the one loss coming in a down-to-the-wire battle with Michigan, Ball State will be one of the MAC's hotter teams going into 2007 and should come up with the first winning season since 1996. With Nate Davis back at quarterback, the offense will keep defensive coordinators up at nights. For long-suffering Cardinal fans, this should be the season they've been waiting for.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any running game to balance out the offense? The defense is a whole other issue to deal with; the offense is going to carry the team. It'll be tempting to bomb away all the time with Davis throwing to Darius Hill and Dante Love, but a little more pop from the ground game would be nice. MiQuale Lewis will be the number one man early on, but new recruit Frank Edmonds will likely be the star of the show come this fall.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. Job one this spring is to find who can cover someone after an awful season against the pass. While statistically the pass defense improved as the season went on, that's mostly because teams like Michigan and Toledo ran the ball down BSU's throat. The Cardinal secondary will see the MAC's best passing game every day in practice, and it has to improve by the day after allowing 258 yards per game.
Spring attitude... If there's just a little bit of defense, Ball State should be one of the favorites for the MAC title. If the team could be this close to a big season with no defense whatsoever, a few stops here and there should mean a winning season and a bowl bid. In other words, this spring has to be all about defense, defense, defense.

Central Michigan
The early spring buzz ...
If you liked the CMU passing game before, you're going to love it even more under new head coach Butch Jones. The former West Virginia receivers coach went heavy on receivers in the recruiting class and appears to be planning on going with the team's strength, QB Dan LeFevour, to take on even more responsibility. With the air game expected to be even better ...
The big spring question is ... Will the running game be ignored? Hardly. Jones is a spread offense guy from West Virginia, so expect Marcel Archer and Ontario Sneed to get more than their share of carries. As the offensive coordinator at CMU from 2001 to 2003, Jones did a great job with the running backs and should help make CMU's great ones even better.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end The team's biggest losses are on the defensive line where all-star Dan Bazuin and solid running mate Mike Ogle are gone after combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks (with Bazuin getting ten of them). The faster the new starting end prospects like Frank Zombo and Larry Knight can shine, the less the new coaching staff will have to get creative at figuring out how to get to the quarterback.
Spring attitude... A repeat MAC title is expected. If Jones is as good as advertised, there shouldn't be any sort of slip in the overall production. Road games at Clemson, Kansas, Purdue and Indiana might prevent another ten win season without another season with victories in the MAC title game and a bowl, but there's no reason whatsoever for CMU to not be one of the league's better teams.

Eastern Michigan    Spring Practice Begins: March 10  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ...
EMU is having a tough time in the arms race. Unfortunately, the program is in the far tougher of the two MAC divisions making it tough to make a quick change after not coming up with a winning season since 1995. The team was competitive last year losing six games by eight points or fewer, but 1-11 is 1-11. Head coach Jeff Genyk has to come up with something positive this year, and this spring has to be step one with sharper execution on both sides of the ball.
The big spring question is ... Will the offense score? Injuries and issues at quarterback were a problem, while the lack of a rushing punch was another, but the biggest issue was scoring. EMU never scored more than 21 points and only hit the 20-point mark four times, and while the defense made huge improvements when it came to bending but not breaking, it still wasn't anything to get excited about, especially against the run. Simply put, EMU has to figure out how to outslug other teams.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. With Eric Deslauriers and Trumaine Riley gone, EMU is missing its top two receivers who made 119 of the team's 217 catches and 1,262 of the 2,046 yards. Deslauriers caught five of the team's seven touchdown passes. Right off the bat, weapons have to emerge for quarterback Andy Schmitt, Tyler Jones (if he's not staying at running back) and Dontayo Gage.
Spring attitude... The team needs to find something it can do really, really well. There wasn't any one thing EMU could go to over the course of last year on either side of the ball, and now it needs to find an identity. The offensive line should be a strength with all the returning starters, and there are some interesting talents in the backfield. Now something has to start to work and there have to be a few signs of improvement.

Northern Illinois
The early spring buzz ...
Is this finally going to be the year Joe Novak is a bride? With seven straight winning seasons and two bowl games in the last three, the program is rock solid and is once again expecting to be in the thick of the MAC title race. While there are some key losses (RB Garrett Wolfe, OT Doug Free, DE Ken West), the talent is there to be among the league's best yet again. However ...
The big spring question is ... Has the program hit a plateau? For years NIU has been among the MAC's best teams and was a big pass play from being the league's champion in 2005, but it doesn't seem to be able to get over the hump. In the nasty MAC West, teams like Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Toledo are all going to be good enough to win the title, and unless something has changed up in the team's philosophy, especially for a defense that gives up way too many big plays with its attacking style, NIU might remain an also-ran.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Few teams crank out productive running backs like Northern Illinois from Thomas Hammock to Michael Turner to Garrett Wolfe (and going back in the day, LeShon Johnson). The battle for the starting gig this spring should be a good one between Cas Prime, Justin Anderson, Montel Clanton, Ricky Crider, and Alan Smith, who returns from a knee injury. It might be tailback-by-committee until one emerges.
Spring attitude... Consistency. After the team became way too reliant on Wolfe, the offense became hit-or-miss over the second half of last year and went into the tank against the better teams (don't count the Central Michigan game when the Chippewas letdown after all but wrapping up the title the week before). NIU needs to get more pop on offense, better play from the secondary, and more from the special teams on kickoff returns and punts.

Toledo   Spring Practice Begins: March 16  Final Practice: April 16
The early spring buzz ...
The stellar recruiting class might have energized the program. Toledo didn't get the league's best recruiting class, but it got some really, really good prospects and some instant starters. Running backs Morgan Williams and Hosea Simpson should provide more pop to an already solid backfield, while receiver Kaunda Hancock and quarterbacks D.J. Lenehan and Travaris Cadet will battle this fall for jobs.
The big spring question is ... Was last year a fluke? Probably. The Rockets lost a three overtime game at Iowa State, impossibly gagged against Eastern Michigan, and lost by three to Ball State. A slightly better, more experienced team wins those three games, goes 8-4, and is off to a bowl. Head coach Tom Amsutz and his staff are too good to let the perennial MAC powerhouse be mediocre for two years in a row. There should be a big improvement if there's better play at ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The passing game never got into a groove with either Clint Cochran or Aaron Opelt. Cochran had been around the program for a while and struggled way too much with his accuracy after the Iowa State opener, while Opelt was thrown to the wolves as a freshman to utilize his mobility. Toledo doesn't have to throw for 300 yards a game, but it does have to be more efficient and has to be better on third downs.
Spring attitude... Get back to the title. It's been two years since the Rockets played for the MAC championship, and with a little bit of tweaking and improvement in all phases, there's no reason they can't be the favorites in the West. After last year, anything less than a winning season and a bowl game will be seen as a disaster.

Western Michigan   Spring Practice Begins: March 15  Final Practice: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
Is this going to be the last hurrah for head coach Bill Cubit? He's certainly not going to get canned after turning Western Michigan into a MAC contender, but he might be open to any and all job openings to upgrade his payday since he makes roughly 5% of Nick Saban's salary at Alabama. Another good season will turn a few more heads, while a MAC champion would likely mean he's gone.
The big spring question is ... Is there enough offensive pop to get through the MAC West? WMU's offense was fine, but it didn't have the explosion it had the previous year when Greg Jennings and Tony Scheffler were lighting up secondaries. With Tim Hiller back at quarterback this year to battle Thomas Peregrin for Ryan Cubit's old gig, and with eight other offensive starters returning, there's hope for the attack to be far more dangerous.
The most important position to watch is ... Outside linebacker. WMU isn't going to replace the production of All-America pass rushing terror Ameer Ismail on the weakside, and it might have a hard time finding a big-time playmaker to step in for Paul Tithof on the strongside. Greg Marshall is a bigger option than Tithof, while Matt Buskirk is a speedy fill-in for Ismail.
Spring attitude... The time is now to win the West. WMU hasn't played for the MAC title since 2000 and has its best team since with a great shot at winning the championship and getting back to a bowl game. Last year's sophomore-filled team is loaded and should be dangerous not just in conference play, but also in tough non-conference road games against West Virginia, Michigan State, Missouri and Iowa.


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