BY MAX MCDONALD
MICHIGAN – Football season is just around the corner. The Lions are in their second week of training camp pointing towards the opener on Sept. 8 against the Arizona Cardinals. Michigan State and the University of Michigan opened their fall camps last week. Our local high schools can start practice on Sept. 12, with that in mind its time to take a closer look at the upcoming season. We will start with our Annual College Football Preview this week. The Lions will be our focus next week and our Fall High School Sports Season Preview will follow on Aug. 21.
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI
Head Coach Mark Dantonio
Record 2018 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten
The Spartans return 19 starters this year, nine on defense and ten on offense. Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes leads a defense that was number one in the nation in rush defense last year. Linebacker Joe Bachie, defensive lineman Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk, and cornerback Josiah Scott all have NFL potential and should keep the Spartan defense in the top 10 nationally.
The real question marks are on offense. After a disastrous 2018 season Head Coach Mark Dantonio shook up his coaching staff with the hopes of sparking the offense. The biggest change was the promotion of Brad Salem to offensive coordinator. Based on last year’s production, returning ten starters is no guarantee of success. Injuries hit the offense hard with most position groups losing starters. Brian Lewerke suffered a shoulder injury against Penn State and was relatively ineffective afterwards. The offensive line was decimated by injuries rendering the rushing attack that lost starter LJ Scott, almost non-existent. Throw in a receiving core in which all three starters missed significant playing time due to injury and you have a recipe for a 7-6 season.
The offense can’t be that bad again, can it? Lewerke is healthy and returns for his third year as a starter. Backup Rocky Lombardi, got significant playing time last year in relief of Lewerke. Seven offensive lineman with starting experience return as do three receivers, Cody White, Darrell Stewart, and Jalen Nailor. If the offense is average the Spartans should win nine games. A good offense could have the Spartans back in Indianapolis for the fourth time.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Record 2018 10-3, 8-1 Big Ten
The Wolverines finished the 2018 season with an 8-1 Big Ten record tied with Ohio State atop the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes earned the trip to Indianapolis based upon their victory over UM. After watching how OSU and Florida (Peach Bowl) were able to move the ball on his defense Harbaugh made the decision to open up the offense. To accomplish this he hired Josh Gattis to revamp the scheme. Gattis brings spread concepts to Ann Arbor in hopes to take advantage of the skills of returning quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey.
The offensive line looks like it will be a position of strength this year with four out of five starters returning. Wide receiver is another position with multiple returning players. If Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones can remain healthy the Wolverines will be well stocked at the position. With the loss of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans the running back position is up in the air. Experienced players Christian Turner and Tru Wilson and freshman Zach Charbonnet are expected to compete for playing time.
Defense was Michigan’s strength last year as was evident in the four players selected early in the NFL Draft. Devin Bush, Reshan Gary, Chase Winovich and David Long all were drafted in the first three rounds last April. The Wolverines also lost defensive line coach Greg Mattison to Ohio State. This type of attrition would be devastating for many teams, but UM recruiting has been great lately. There should be multiple players ready to take advantage of the opportunity. If UM is able to patch the holes on defense and keep their offensive skill players healthy they should be in position for another ten win season and to challenge for the Big Ten East title.
Central Michigan University
Mt. Pleasant, MI
Head Coach Jim McElwain
Record 2018 1-11, 0-8 MAC
Jim McElwain comes to Central by way of Florida. McElwain was fired midway through his third season with the Gators in 2017. He was able to bring in a decent recruiting class and attract several transfers. One of those transfers is quarterback Quinten Dormady. Dormady was a former four-star recruit who has made stops at both Tennesse and Houston. With all of the problems that the Chippewa’s had at quarterback he is likely to step right into a starting role. The Chippewa’s return two senior running backs Jonathan Ward and Romello Ross, but had problems on the offensive line last year. The Chips lost last years top receiver via transfer so there will be plenty of opportunity for newcomers. Kalil Pimpleton, a transfer from Virginia Tech. He has a good bet to see a lot of throws come his way.
The defense kept Central in a lot of games last year, but it will be tough to match last year’s effort due to attrition. Their top pass rusher transferred and the leading tackler graduated. They also had two cornerbacks enter the NFL draft as juniors. With a new coach and system it could be a long year for the Chippewa’s with four to five wins probably the ceiling.
Western Michigan University
Head Coach Tim Lester 3rd year
Record 2018 7-6, 5-3 MAC
The Broncos return a lot of production on offense including two of their top three receivers D’Wayne Eskridge and Giovanni Ricci along with a healthy quarterback in Jon Wassink. Western was 6-2 before Wassink was injured last year against Toledo. First team All-MAC running back LaVante Bellamy and a veteran offensive line should make the offense formidable again. They averaged 32 points a game last season.
The defense is experienced but also finished 10th in scoring defense in the MAC last season. The Broncos play an attacking style, which led to a lot of tackles for a loss, but was also gashed on many occasions due to aggressive style. Defensive lineman Ali Fayad and Antonio Balabani return. The duo accounted for 18 tackles for a loss including nine sacks. The schedule is not kind to Western this year. They travel to Michigan State and Syracuse during the nonconference portion, and also have to face MAC favorites Toledo and Ohio University on the road. 8-4 seems about right for the Broncos.
Ferris State University
Big Rapids, MI
Head Coach Tony Annese 7th year
Record 2018 15-0, 8-0 GLIAC
Ferris State enters the season hoping to extend their playoff streak to six years. Last year the Bulldogs reached the Division 2 National Championship game for the first time ever before losing 49-47. They are currently ranked first or second by all of the polls that cover Division 2 football. Last years champion Valdosta State shares top billing with Ferris in those same polls.
Jayru Campbell returns to lead the Bulldog offense. The reigning Harlon Hill Trophy winner is one of the favorites for this year’s award. Ferris State is also a favorite to repeat as conference champion. With a 60-8 record over the last five years including three unbeaten regular seasons it is tough to bet against them.
Saginaw Valley State University
University Center, MI
Head Coach Ryan Brady 1st year
Record 2018 8-3, 5-3 GLIAC
The Cardinals return a veteran squad this year. Nine starters return on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Ryan Conklin ranked third in the league last year in both passing yards and touchdowns. Chad Gilliard also returns for SVSU. The junior receiver led the conference in yards per game and touchdowns. Running back Nate McCrary also returns with his entire offensive line. The Cardinal offense seems poised for a big season.
All-American defensive tackle Heath Williams is back for his senior season. He is joined by Patrik Moriarty and David Still giving SVSU one of the best lines in the GLIAC. Saginaw Valley was picked fourth in the GLIAC preseason polls, but with all of its returning talent it is not hard to envision them finishing higher at seasons end.
Head Coach Leonard Haynes
Record 3-7, 3-5 GLIAC
Senior quarterback Joe Garbarino returns to lead the Northwood offense. Garbarino has been the starter since arriving on campus and hopes to lead the Timberwolves to a better 2019 season. When healthy he is a capable duo threat quarterback. Junior Abdul led the team in rushing last year and Alex Spicuzzi is the teams’ top returning wide receiver. Most of the offense line also returns intact.
Five starters were lost to graduation on the defensive side of the ball. One key returning defensive player is Dimitri Abro. Abro led the team in tackles, sacks and pass breakups. Mykhael Sanford-McCarver also returns. He had 53 tackle for Northwood last year. With all the holes to fill on the defense Northwood is going to be hard pressed to improve on last years 3-7 record.