Commentary

All-Access: LeFevour prepares for a bigger stage

Originally Published: September 5, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. -- Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour took a seat in the front row of the Chippewas' team meeting room shortly after lunch Tuesday, grabbed a remote control and began watching what he hoped wasn't a horror film.

[+] EnlargeDan LeFevour
Adam Bird for ESPN.comCentral Michigan QB Dan LeFevour has led the Chippewas to MAC titles in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
"Man, that's a big stadium!" LeFevour said as he started to dissect highlights from No. 2 Georgia's 45-21 victory over FCS opponent Georgia Southern in its Aug. 30 opener at Sanford Stadium.

And it will be a big stage on Saturday for LeFevour, who might be college football's best-kept secret. Two-time defending MAC champion Central Michigan plays at Georgia, which fell from No. 1 to No. 2 in this week's top 25 polls. The Chippewas won't play on a bigger stage this season -- Sanford Stadium seats 92,746 fans; Kelly/Shorts Stadium, CMU's home field, seats 30,255 fans.

Saturday's game is a rare opportunity for LeFevour to shine on a national stage. Last season, LeFevour ran and passed for more yards than Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (the Chippewas played 14 games; the Gators played 13).

But while Tebow is one of the most visible players in the sport, LeFevour remains almost anonymous to fans outside the Mid-American Conference. Last season, LeFevour became only the second player in major college football history to run for 1,000 yards and throw for 3,000 in the same season (former Texas quarterback Vince Young is the other).

The junior from Downers Grove, Ill., also is the first player in MAC history to lead his team to conference titles as a freshman and sophomore.

"I think he's got the 'it' factor," Chippewas coach Butch Jones said. "He's got a presence about him. The mark of a great player is he elevates the players around him. Dan's got instincts and the game plays slow for him. He has great vision. He doesn't drop his eyes and sees the whole field. He's very accurate and is extremely, extremely competitive."

As the Chippewas prepared to play the Bulldogs this week, Jones granted ESPN.com unlimited access inside his program. ESPN.com was allowed to attend staff meetings, position meetings, practices and even LeFevour's classes. As part of the agreement, ESPN.com promised not to reveal the Chippewas' game plan or strategy against Georgia.

Here's an up-close look at how LeFevour and his teammates prepared for their biggest challenge of the season:

Tuesday, 8 a.m., Staff Meeting


With kickoff only four days away, Jones and his assistants are cramped in an office next to the Dick Enberg Academic Center (yes, that Dick Enberg -- the longtime sports commentator is a 1957 CMU graduate).

Outsider Status

Despite posting higher numbers last season than Heisman winner Tim Tebow, Central Michigan QB Dan LeFevour is largely unknown outside the MAC. We get to know him and the Chippewas a little better as they prepare to play No. 2 Georgia. Zoom Gallery
Director of football operations Plas Presnell, who is in his 26th season on the CMU staff, gave Jones an update on the weather forecast for Athens, Ga. With Tropical Storm Hanna expected to hit the East Coast sometime this weekend, the forecast predicts possible heavy rain at Sanford Stadium.

"The guy with the plane is scared to death about the weather," Presnell told Jones, referring to the team's charter flight from Lansing, Mich., to Atlanta on Friday.

"The pilot is scared?" asked nervous-looking defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

"No, the guy who owns the plane," Presnell told him. "He thinks we might have to stay there until Sunday."

"Boy, that would really cut it into the guarantee," Jones said, referring to the Chippewas' hefty payday from Georgia, which is more than $600,000 for playing on the Bulldogs' home field.

"We want to make sure we have a great game plan for weather and under-the-center," Jones told offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.

LeFevour seems unconcerned about the possibility of bad weather. He grew up about 30 miles west of Chicago and is used to playing in cold temperatures, rain and, of course, strong winds.

"It won't bother me," LeFevour said.

The Chippewas are a few days ahead of schedule in installing their game plan for the Georgia game. Central Michigan opened the season on Thursday, Aug. 28, beating Eastern Illinois 31-12. Jones and his assistants spent Friday night and most of Saturday installing the game plan for the Bulldogs.

Jones left his coaches with this advice: "Here's what I don't want to do: Our kids are really excited to play Georgia, but I don't want to make this out to be a freaking Super Bowl. We've got Ohio next week and that's a must-win for us."

Jones' message has already gotten through to his team's most important player.

"Obviously, it's a big opportunity," LeFevour said. "I think every program gets big opportunities every year. I don't want to put this one on a pedestal. We realize we can make the most of a great opportunity. But we're not putting all our eggs in one basket, either."

Tuesday, 9 a.m., Game Plan Meetings


Over the next two hours, the Chippewas' offensive coaches remained in the same meeting room, dissecting film from five Georgia games. The coaches watched clips from Georgia's victory over Georgia Southern, along with games from last season against Florida, Kentucky, Troy and Hawaii.

I think every program gets big opportunities every year. I don't want to put this one on a pedestal. We realize we can make the most of a great opportunity. But we're not putting all our eggs in one basket, either.

--Dan LeFevour

The coaches spend more than an hour deciding how to attack Georgia's defense on third down. They spend several minutes watching clips of how Georgia's defense plays on third-and-short, third-and-medium and third-and-long.

"You've still got to run the ball a little bit in this down and distance," Jones said. "If we let them pin their ears back and come after us, it's going to be a long afternoon."

Jones also seems concerned about the Bulldogs' speed on defense. Running the football is a big part of LeFevour's game -- he ran for 1,122 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Running might not be so easy against Georgia.

"You'll be hard-pressed to find a faster team across the board," Jones said.

Tuesday, 11 a.m., Billiards Class


LeFevour takes his position near a pool table in the Student Athletic Center, which is known as "SAC" on the CMU campus. For the next 45 minutes, LeFevour practices breaking balls on the felt-covered table. The class is taught by a graduate assistant coach on the school's softball team. She carries a textbook entitled "Precision Pool," apparently teaching as she learns.

"Has everyone pretty much got that down?" she asks the class. "We're going to practice some more breaks. You're not good at pool until you can master all the break techniques."

Near the end of the class, LeFevour tries his luck at a "defensive break," in which he attempts to hit the balls near the back of the rack. In eight-ball pool, a player must knock in two balls and hit a rail with the cue ball. LeFevour is nowhere close to mastering it on his first try.

"Now just hit it a little bit harder," the instructor tells him.

Early on, LeFevour wasn't sure he'd last at Central Michigan. Only a week into his freshman year in 2005, LeFevour was ready to leave. Jones, who worked as Central Michigan's running backs coach under Brian Kelly in 2004, had recruited LeFevour for the Chippewas. But Jones left for West Virginia before LeFevour enrolled. The quarterback was ready to quit the team after only a few practices.

"I went through the same things all freshmen go through," LeFevour said. "I didn't like being yelled at, and all my friends were off at college having fun."

Jones said LeFevour called him every day for a couple of weeks.

"I'm at West Virginia and he's calling me every day," Jones said. "I think that's a great story. His parents wouldn't let him leave. They told him, 'You need to stay there.' I was telling him to stay. The first year is always the toughest."

LeFevour said his parents, Jack and Judy LeFevour, gave him no choice but to stay in Mount Pleasant.

"My dad asked me, 'What are your plans? Are you going to go to community college? Everybody goes to college,'" LeFevour said. "I decided to stick it out for the semester. I actually got a chance to play some and had some success in football, which made it better."

Tuesday, 1 p.m., Film Review


LeFevour spends about six to seven hours each week watching film of the defense he is about to face.

The highlights are organized by formation and down and distance, making it easy for LeFevour to breeze through them. LeFevour spends only a few seconds on each play, and his eyes scan the large white screen much like he would look over a defense on Saturday.

"I'm looking for a little bit of everything," LeFevour said. "You see tendencies and how they play different coverages. One team will play a certain coverage differently compared to another team. I'm just trying to see what the quarterback sees. I'm going through my own plays in my head as I watch the film, trying to visualize what I'll see."

[+] EnlargeDan LeFevour
Adam Bird for ESPN.comLast season LeFevour threw for over 3,600 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for over 1,000 yards with 19 touchdowns.
Of utmost concern to the Chippewas this week is Georgia's ability to generate a pass rush from only a three-man front. If Central Michigan allows that to happen, the Bulldogs will be able to drop eight players into pass coverage, making it more difficult for LeFevour to find open receivers.

"It's a little bit of everything with that defense," Jones told his quarterback. "But the common theme is dropping eight into coverage."

After watching former Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook throw an interception in Georgia's 44-34 home win over Troy last season, LeFevour turns off the film.

"They're pretty good," LeFevour said. "They're definitely good. We know we've got to play fundamentally sound. They just play physical and fast, so you can't try to do too much. You've just got to do your job. A lot of guys were trying to make big plays on their own. You've just got to do your job."

Tuesday, 2 p.m., Position Meetings


Bajakian, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, held court with LeFevour and the team's other quarterbacks for nearly an hour.

Bajakian drew formations on a dry-erase board and constantly quizzed LeFevour. The coach wanted to know the name of the formation, what routes the receivers would run, what the quarterback's progressions would be and what kind of drop he would take after receiving the football from center.

Once again, the Chippewas were concentrating on facing Georgia's defense on third down.

"If we've got third-and-18 and make 9 yards, we've forced their offense to gain another first down," Bajakian told his quarterbacks. "It's all about field position."

After watching film for more than a half-hour, LeFevour noticed Georgia's defensive game plan was pretty vanilla against Georgia Southern.

"They were pretty simple against Georgia Southern," Bajakian said. "The reason? They're probably building each week. They won't look the same against us."

"So what do you think?" LeFevour asked him.

Bajakian knows Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and linebackers coach John Jancek well. Both coaches once worked at Central Michigan.

"Knowing their linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, I think we'll see significantly more crap," Bajakian said. "They like this stuff."

Tuesday, 3 p.m., Practice


The Chippewas file onto the FieldTurf at Kelly/Shorts Stadium less than 15 minutes after their position meetings end. There's a grass practice field adjacent to the stadium, but the Chippewas have never practiced there during Jones' tenure.

Near the back of an end zone, three large speakers are used to simulate the crowd noise the Chippewas will face at Sanford Stadium. Over the next two hours, LeFevour calls out his cadence and signals while screaming over the lyrics to "Glory, Glory," which is Georgia's fight song.

LeFevour wants to make sure the Chippewas are prepared for their surroundings on Saturday. Last season, Central Michigan was embarrassed in a 52-7 loss at Kansas and a 70-14 loss at Clemson.

Why not us? Why not us? They put their pants on the same way we do. We're the best-conditioned team in America. Nobody practices with the same pace we do. That's our edge. It's the Chippewa way!

--Butch Jones

"We let them score a bunch of points really fast and let them take the game away from us," LeFevour said. "The game was about out of hand before halftime. That can't happen again. I think we need to play with much better effort."

Jones stressed tempo and effort throughout the practice. The Chippewas even took a break from the rigors of practice to compete in a bull-in-the-ring type of drill. With each of Central Michigan's players forming a circle near midfield on the practice field, two players battled it out inside the circle.

"This is the mentality I want on our football team," Jones told his players after practice. "If you're a cornerback, I want you slapping the ground, telling the receiver, 'Come on, man!' I want wide receivers doing the same thing.

"Why not us? Why not us? They put their pants on the same way we do. We're the best-conditioned team in America. Nobody practices with the same pace we do. That's our edge. It's the Chippewa way!"

Practice is followed by the first "victory dinner" of the season, in which the players, coaches and their families eat together at a nearby dorm.

Wednesday, 9 a.m., Yoga Class


At 8:55 a.m. Thursday, LeFevour walks into a dance studio near the SAC and prepares for his earliest class of the day -- yoga. A long-haired instructor passes out yoga mats and blankets to his students.

LeFevour is joined in the class by his backup, Brian Brunner. The senior from Hubertus, Wis., was the Chippewas' starting quarterback in 2006, but he suffered a concussion on the second play of the season opener against Boston College. LeFevour replaced him and never relinquished the starting job. The quarterbacks remain good friends.

"I'm about to balance the symbiotic relationship between mind and body," Brunner said, before walking into the dance studio.

LeFevour might have had other motives when he enrolled in the course -- there are 29 females and only seven males in the class. LeFevour seems right at home while attempting poses like "five-pointed star" and "triangle."

"It's my favorite class," LeFevour said. "It's a nice break in the day."

Near the end of the class, the instructor, Andrew Criswell, turns out the lights. The students lay on their mats with their heads lying on a blanket. They end the session with the "corpse" pose.

"You're long and you're tall and you have beautiful length," Criswell told his students. "Whatever you have going on this morning, just put aside all the activities up until now. Don't be concerned about what might be happening later. Put that aside, too. Just focus on awareness of the present."

[+] EnlargeDan LeFevour
Adam Bird for ESPN.comESPN.com tagged along with LeFevour and CMU as they prepared for Georgia and even stopped in on one of his yoga classes.
LeFevour, who is on track to graduate next year with a degree in interpersonal communication, actually takes courses that require more than physical exertion. He is taking classes that concentrate on insurance planning, fundamentals of personal finance and nonverbal communication. LeFevour had a 3.53 grade-point average in the spring semester and has received All-MAC academic honors.

"I took all that algebra and calculus when I was a freshman," LeFevour said.

Wednesday, 11 a.m., Interviews


After cooling off from his yoga class, LeFevour has nearly a half-hour scheduled for media interviews.

Since Central Michigan is playing Georgia, the school's sports information office has been inundated with more requests than usual. Many of the national media outlets have requested interviews with LeFevour. He talked to the announcers who would call the broadcast of Saturday's game and answered questions that were e-mailed to him by a reporter from an Atlanta newspaper.

The school has worked to greatly increase LeFevour's notoriety. During the summer, Central Michigan leased a 30-foot by 60-foot billboard at Comerica Park in Detroit. LeFevour's likeness is on the billboard.

"It's different when you see it," LeFevour said. "Seeing it in person, you're just kind of like, 'Whoa!' It's 60-foot by 30-foot, you know? I guess, to put it in perspective for me, it would be like a billboard outside U.S. Cellular Field or Wrigley Field [in his hometown of Chicago]. It's pretty cool. But at the same time, if we don't do well, it doesn't make us look very good. You have to put up or shut up."

LeFevour and Chippewas have an opportunity to stand taller than ever at Georgia on Saturday.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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