Commentary

Breaking down the MAC West

Originally Published: May 12, 2008
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

Can Nate Davis pass Ball State to the top? Will Central Michigan improve its pass defense? And will Toledo find an answer at running back? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the MAC West.

Ball State Cardinals

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 Northeastern
Sept. 5 Navy
Sept. 13 @ Akron
Sept. 20 @ Indiana
Sept. 27 Kent State
Oct. 4 @ Toledo
Oct. 11 @ Western Kentucky
Oct. 25 Eastern Michigan
Nov. 5 Northern Illinois
Nov. 11 Miami (Ohio)
Nov. 19 @ Central Michigan
Nov. 25 @ Western Michigan


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
5-2

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Nate Davis, TE Darius Hill, WR Dante Love, RT Robert Brewster, LB Bryant Haines, DE Brandon Crawford, CB B.J. Hill, CB Trey Lewis, P Chris Miller
Key losses
LB Cortland Booker, LB Mike Dorulla, FS Eddie Burk
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Frank Edmonds* (531 yds)
Passing: Nate Davis* (3,667 yds)
Receiving: Dante Love* (1,398 yds)
Tackles: Bryant Haines* (125)
Sacks: Brandon Crawford (8)
Interceptions: B.J. Hill* and Trey Lewis* (5)

Spring answers

1. Man in the middle: Linebacker is one of the only positions in which Ball State suffered moderate personnel losses: Both Cortlan Booker and Mike Dorulla departed. Davyd Jones emerged this spring as a potential solution at either middle or weakside linebacker. Jones tied for the team lead with seven tackles (1 for loss) in the spring game as he competed with Wendell Brown and Spain Cosby. "He's instinctive as a linebacker, and he has the movements of a linebacker," coach Brady Hoke told The (Muncie) Star-Press. "He has the things that you don't want to overcoach."

2. Another weapon: Already boasting two of the MAC's best targets in wide receiver Dante Love and tight end Darius Hill, Ball State spent the spring in search of more passing options for quarterback Nate Davis. Sophomore Daniel Ifft answered the call. Ifft had two touchdown receptions in the spring game and created some distance between himself and competitors Louis Johnson, Joe Everett and Myles Trempe.

3. Davis dominates: It's hardly a surprise by now, but quarterback Nate Davis continued to perform at peak levels throughout the spring. Davis completed 15 of 21 passes for 251 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the spring game. After setting school records in passing yards (3,667) and passing touchdowns (30) last season, Davis figures to once again compete with Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour for MAC offensive player of the year honors.

Fall questions

1. On the run: The passing game should flourish again this fall, but the Cardinals have some uncertainty at running back. MiQuale Lewis missed spring ball following ACL surgery but is expected to return this summer. If healthy, Lewis could become a solid featured back, but Ball State also needs production from Frank Edmonds and Cory Sykes, who performed well this spring. Short-yardage situations remain a concern for the Cardinals, who didn't show much improvement in the spring game.

2. Stoppers needed: Ball State struggled against the run last season, allowing 204.3 yards per game. With end Brandon Crawford the only returning starter up front, the Cardinals need to find more capable run-stoppers in preseason camp. Second-leading tackler Mike Dorulla is also gone, so both linebacker and defensive line have become key areas.

3. Kicking issues: The kicking game is unsettled heading into training camp after both Ian McGarvey and Chris Reinking missed attempts in the spring game. McGarvey, who converted seven of nine field goals last season, seemed like the front-runner for the job but will need to prove more this summer. In the spring game, he missed from 29 yards, while Reinking couldn't connect on a 32-yarder.

Central Michigan Chippewas

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 6 @ Georgia
Sept. 13 @ Ohio
Sept. 20 @ Purdue
Sept. 27 Buffalo
Oct. 11 Temple
Oct. 18 Western Michigan
Oct. 25 @ Toledo
Nov. 1 @ Indiana
Nov. 12 @ Northern Illinois
Nov. 19 Ball State
Nov. 28 @ Eastern Michigan


2007 overall record:
8-6

2007 conference record:
6-1

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB QB Dan LeFevour, WR Bryan Anderson, WR Antonio Brown, RB Ontario Sneed, RT Andrew Hartline, LB Nick Bellore, DE Frank Zombo, PK Andrew Aguila
Key losses
RG Eric Tunney, LB Red Keith, LB Ike Brown, DT Steven Friend
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Dan LeFevour* (1,122 yds)
Passing: Dan LeFevour* (3,652 yds)
Receiving: Bryan Anderson* (1,132 yds)
Tackles: Red Keith (148)
Sacks: Frank Zombo* (7.5)
Interceptions: Josh Gordy* (4)

Spring answers

1. Head West: After finishing next to last nationally in pass defense a year ago, the Chippewas needed a shake-up this spring. Chaz West, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles (90) last season, moved from cornerback to safety and was named one of the spring's top performers. "You can't say enough about Chaz West," coach Butch Jones told The Morning Sun.

2. Backer bonanza: Mike Petrucci's emergence this spring proved extremely valuable because Central Michigan had to replace standout linebackers Red Keith and Ike Brown. Petrucci, who stepped up toward the end of spring ball, enters the summer as a favorite to fill one of the vacancies. He redshirted last season as a freshman.

3. Volny's time: As top running backs Ontario Sneed and Justin Hoskins sat out the spring with injuries, third-stringer Carl Volny made a strong case for carries this fall. Volny, who had just 29 carries in six games last season, will take on an increased role this fall.

Fall questions

1. Sick bay full: It was hard to get a read on Central Michigan this spring as several prominent players sat out with injuries, including wide receiver Bryan Anderson (shoulder) and backs Sneed and Hoskins. The health of those starters will be vital when training camp begins, though most are expected back from offseason surgeries. "Injuries are a part of football and we just happen to have an abundance of them now," Jones told The Morning Sun. "But we would much rather have them now rather than in the fall."

2. Linebackers needed: Most of Jones' concerns are on the defensive side after watching his team allow 36.9 points per game last season. Linebacker tops his priority list after losing Keith and Brown, who combined for 254 tackles last season. Petrucci's play this spring was encouraging, but several other players must step up in training camp. Matt Berning, Tim Brazzel, Vince Khoury, Jonathan Lapsley and David Lawrence are all in the mix.

3. Shaky secondary: Though West seemed to adjust well to his new spot at safety, the secondary remains an iffy area after last season's struggles. Interceptions leader Josh Gordy and West both have excellent playmaking skills. The next step is to build depth around them. Vince Agnew and Tommy Mama will compete to start opposite Gordy at cornerback, while three players with starting experience -- Eric Fraser, Kirkston Edwards and E.J. McLaughlin -- are in the mix at safety.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 Indiana State
Sept. 6 @ Michigan State
Sept. 13 Toledo
Sept. 20 @ Maryland
Sept. 27 Northern Illinois
Oct. 4 @ Bowling Green
Oct. 11 @ Army
Oct. 18 Akron
Oct. 25 @ Ball State
Nov. 1 @ Western Michigan
Nov. 22 @ Temple
Nov. 28 Central Michigan


2007 overall record:
4-8

2007 conference record:
3-4

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Andy Schmitt, WR Jacory Stone, WR Tyler Jones, LG Andy Fretz, LB Daniel Holtzclaw, DE Spenser Smith, FS Ryan Downard, P/PK Zach Johnson
Key losses
RB Pierre Walker, TE Ken Bohnet, RG Khalid Walton, DT Jason Jones, LB Darran Matthews, DE Eric Young
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Pierre Walker (839 yds)
Passing: Andy Schmitt* (1,613 yds)
Receiving: Jacory Stone* (462 yds)
Tackles: Daniel Holtzclaw* (125)
Sacks: Eric Young (4)
Interceptions: Ryan Downard* (6)

Spring answers

1. Here to stay: Despite starting 10 games last season and accounting for 20 touchdowns (14 passing, 6 rushing), Andy Schmitt entered the spring needing to reclaim his starting job. Schmitt came through with a solid performance and holds the edge over talented sophomore Kyle McMahon, who started two games last season. Both Schmitt and McMahon have the skills to effectively run the spread offense and could platoon at times this fall.

2. Tandem emerges: The Eagles lose leading rusher Pierre Walker and want to build a better running game outside of the versatile Schmitt. Both Terrence Blevins and Dwayne Priest emerged as potential featured backs, bolstering a spread offense that hinges on the ground game. Blevins boasts an excellent combination of speed and power, while Priest has top-end burst.

3. Receiving orders: Wide receiver could be a strength this fall after several players turned in strong spring performances. The hope is, converted quarterback Tyler Jones can form a potent tandem with Jacory Stone, as Eastern Michigan accounts for the loss of Travis Lewis. "This is a very improved group that I'm excited about, led by Tyler and Jacory," coach Jeff Genyk said.

Fall questions

1. Waiting game: Senior defensive end Spenser Smith seems like the obvious choice to step in for superstar Jason Jones, a second-round NFL draft pick. But after Smith missed most of spring practice with a pulled hamstring, his performance in preseason camp becomes crucial. Smith had a sack and three fumble recoveries last season and should anchor a pass rush that also must replace Eric Young (4 sacks, 13 hurries). "I have to step up into a leadership position and take a lead in leading these young guys," Smith told The Ann Arbor News.

2. Uncertainty at linebacker: Eastern Michigan boasts a clear leader in middle linebacker Daniel Holtzclaw, but it must build around him in training camp. Andre Hatchett, who recorded 98 tackles last year, missed spring ball because of academic issues. Hatchett's return is key, and the team needs continued development from players like Tim Fort and Jermaine Jenkins.

3. Kicking accuracy: When a team finds itself in as many offensive shootouts as Eastern Michigan does, the place-kicker position becomes critical. Neither Zach Johnson nor Sean Dutcher put a stamp on the starting job this spring, meaning more competition is on the way this summer. Johnson, a standout punter, converted 5 of 7 attempts last year, while Dutcher went just 2-for-5.

Northern Illinois Huskies

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Minnesota
Sept. 6 @ Western Michigan
Sept. 20 Indiana State
Sept. 27 @ Eastern Michigan
Oct. 4 @ Tennessee
Oct. 11 Miami (Ohio)
Oct. 18 Toledo
Oct. 25 Bowling Green
Nov. 5 @ Ball State
Nov. 12 Central Michigan
Nov. 18 @ Kent State
Nov. 25 Navy


2007 overall record:
2-10

2007 conference record:
1-6

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Justin Anderson, WR Matt Simon, RT Jon Brost, DE Larry English, SS Alex Kube, LB John Tranchitella
Key losses
LT Chris Acevedo, DT Zach Holycross, NG Adam Schroeder, SS Mark Reiter, PK Chris Nendick
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Justin Anderson* (1,245 yds)
Passing: Dan Nicholson* (1,633 yds)
Receiving: Matt Simon* (969 yds)
Tackles: Alex Kube* (111)
Sacks: Larry English* (10.5)
Interceptions: John Tranchitella* and Chase Carter* (2)

Spring answers

1. Fueling the fire: The quarterback competition doesn't officially begin until the summer, when incumbent Dan Nicholson returns from a shoulder injury. But redshirt freshmen DeMarcus Grady and Chandler Harnish showed they'll be in the mix alongside Nicholson and Ryan Morris. Grady displayed top-shelf speed in the spring game, racing for a 57-yard touchdown. Harnish turned in an impressive spring despite struggling in the spring game itself (6-for-19 passing).

2. On the run: The team's streak of 1,000-yard rushers seemed to be in doubt last fall before Justin Anderson relieved the injured Montell Clanton and surged. This spring, Anderson guaranteed a 10th straight 1,000-yard performance from one of NIU's backs, an assurance that looks more and more promising. Anderson, Chad Spann and David Bryant all had their moments in spring ball, and with Clanton on the mend, the run game should once again be NIU's strength.

3. Quick start: Wide receiver Chase Mejia was the first freshman in coach Jerry Kill's inaugural recruiting class at NIU to enroll early in school. This spring, he showed why. As projected starters Matt Simon and Britt Davis sat out with injuries, Mejia turned heads with his ability to acclimate to the college game. "There's so much difference from high school to college, but the way he's picked things up is a tribute to his athleticism and work ethic," Simon told the Aurora Beacon News. "He's handled everything thrown at him very well."

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Despite handling most of the snaps last season, Nicholson will be playing catch-up in training camp after missing the spring with a shoulder injury. Challengers Grady, Harnish and Morris all showed positive signs during spring ball and will put pressure on Nicholson to retain his job. Incoming freshman Brandon Rogers also joins the mix.

2. Health watch: Kill got only a partial look at his new team because 22 players missed part or all of spring practice. Among those returning to the field this summer are Nicholson, Simon, Davis and league MVP Larry English. After injuries decimated the roster last season, Northern Illinois needs to go through training camp healthy, especially with new offensive and defensive systems to absorb.

3. Special deliveries: With nine starters back on each side of the ball, special teams will become a greater priority in training camp. NIU loses standout kicker Chris Nendick, a four-year starter who collected several league honors during his career. The spotlight shifts to junior Mike Salerno, who transferred to NIU from Winona State. Salerno drilled two 40-yard field goals in blustery conditions during the spring game and could step in nicely for Nendick. Several players will compete this summer for both the kickoff and punt return duties.

Toledo Rockets

2008 Schedule

Sept. 6 @ Arizona
Sept. 13 @ Eastern Michigan
Sept. 20 Fresno State
Sept. 27 Florida International
Oct. 4 Ball State
Oct. 11 @ Michigan
Oct. 18 @ Northern Illinois
Oct. 25 Central Michigan
Nov. 5 @ Akron
Nov. 15 @ Western Michigan
Nov. 21 Miami (Ohio)
Nov. 28 Bowling Green


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Aaron Opelt, WR Stephen Williams, WR Nick Moore, SS Barry Church, FS Tyrrell Herbert, PK Alex Steigerwald Key losses
Key losses
RB Jalen Parmele, LT John Greco, LB Greg Hay, DT Tyree Pollard, P Brett Kern
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jalen Parmele (1,511 yds)
Passing: Aaron Opelt* (1,756 yds)
Receiving: Stephen Williams* (1,169 yds)
Tackles: Lester Richmond* (73)
Sacks: Bernard Faithful (2)
Interceptions: Barry Church* and Myshan Pettis* (3)

Spring answers

1. Line secured: The departure of standout left tackle John Greco, a four-year starter, raised concerns entering spring ball. Mike VanDerMeulen quickly put them to rest. The 6-7, 290-pound VanDerMeulen, a redshirt freshman, claimed the starting spot and will protect Aaron Opelt's blind side this fall. "That's a key position and I think Mike is up to the challenge," coach Tom Amstutz said.

2. Shuffling works: Eight returning starters didn't stop Amstutz from reshuffling his defense this spring. Amstutz moved D.J. Summers and Terrell Willis from linebacker to defensive end. Both players adjusted well and are expected to remain on the line this fall. Amstutz also liked what he saw from junior-college transfer Alberston Alexandre. "We moved some personnel around and I think it's going to pay off for us," Amstutz said. "We need to get more pressure on the quarterback and one way you do that is to add speed."

3. Marvelous Marrow: An already-strong secondary added another key component this spring as cornerback Desmond Marrow locked up a starting job. After being injured for most of the 2007 season, Marrow brings playmaking ability to a unit that boasts standout safety Barry Church. Returning starters Walter Atkins and Myshan Pettis will compete to start opposite Marrow this fall. "He's a big corner, he's very physical and a really good tackler," Amstutz told The Toledo Blade. "He's a difference-maker on defense."

Fall questions

1. Backfield replacement: Productive running back Jalen Parmele is gone after piling up 1,511 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Toledo must find a replacement. Amstutz praised the spring performance of DaJuane Collins, who backed up Parmele in 2007 and had 636 yards and seven touchdowns. Collins should step into a starting role this fall, but there will be competition from players like Gordon Warner, who will play both running back and slot receiver, as well as Adonis Thomas and Jason Washington.

2. Receivers ill: Injuries limited the Rockets' wide receiving corps this spring, as leading receiver Stephen Williams and Tim Cortazzo both missed time. The health of the wideouts will be key in training camp because they must adjust to new offensive coordinator Chris Hedden and rebuild chemistry with Opelt, who had a solid spring.

3. Punting vacancy: Brett Kern will be missed after averaging 46.1 yards per punt last season, and the Rockets need to find a replacement. Redshirt freshman Bill Claus emerged from the spring as the favorite to win the starting job, but Amstutz likely will add a walk-on this fall. Toledo also could turn to freshman quarterback David Pasquale, who punted in high school.

Western Michigan Broncos

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Nebraska
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 13 @ Idaho
Sept. 20 Tennessee Tech
Sept. 27 @ Temple
Oct. 4 Ohio
Oct. 11 @ Buffalo
Oct. 18 @ Central Michigan
Nov. 1 Eastern Michigan
Nov. 8 Illinois
Nov. 15 Toledo
Nov. 25 @ Ball State


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
3-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 11, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Tim Hiller, WR Jamarko Simmons, RB Brandon West, TE Branden Ledbetter, CB Londen Fryar, LB Boston McCornell, DE Zach Davidson, FS Louis Delmas
Key losses
T James Blair, C Robbie Krutilla, WR Herb Martin, FS Anthony Gebhart
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Brandon West* (848 yds)
Passing: Tim Hiller* (3,021 yds)
Receiving: Jamarko Simmons* (980 yds)
Tackles: Boston McCornell* (99)
Sacks: Zach Davidson* and Greg Marshall* (6.5)
Interceptions: Anthony Gebhart (2)

Spring answers

1. Defense refuels: Broncos defenders universally welcomed Steve Morrison's promotion to coordinator after a rough season under Bill Miller. The players' familiarity with Morrison showed this spring, as they regained some of the edge they lost last year. The first-team defense posted a shutout in the spring game, as end Zach Davidson collected 3.5 sacks and both Chris Pyant and Cody Cielenski racked up 1.5 sacks. "We've still got something to prove," defensive end Greg Marshall told The Kalamazoo Gazette.

2. Evolution continues: After some inconsistent stretches last season, quarterback Tim Hiller took the next step in his evolution this spring. Despite an underwhelming performance in the spring game (5-for-12 passing, one interception), Hiller displayed a greater grasp of the offense. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in Western Michigan's second scrimmage of the spring. No longer needing to look over his shoulder, Hiller should be primed for a strong season.

3. Powering up: A knee injury to starter Brandon West shifted the spotlight to Glenis Thompson in the spring game, and the stocky sophomore came through. Thompson proved he can be the power back Western Michigan needs to complement West, rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown on only 14 carries in the spring game. Incoming recruit Aaron Winchester also should be in the mix this fall.

Fall questions

1. Insurance policy: Hiller's continued improvement this spring was encouraging, but Western Michigan needs to find a reliable backup quarterback heading into the season. Robert Arnheim held an edge over Drew Burdi during the spring, though both reserves struggled in the spring game. Arnheim went 4-for-7 passing with an interception, while Burdi completed just 5 of 14 attempts.

2. Safety squeeze: Anthony Gebhart helped Western Michigan in several ways, and his departure creates a hole at safety. The Broncos moved C.J. Wilson to nickel back, putting pressure on Mario Armstrong and junior-college transfer Jamail Berry to step up. If Armstrong or Berry can solidify the other safety spot opposite Louis Delmas, Western Michigan could boast one of the league's best secondaries.

3. Special attention: The defense is intact and the offense seems to be solidifying, so Cubit will shift his focus to special teams this summer. John Potter has the inside track to become the starting kicker but will compete with Caleb Morris, who missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt in the spring game. The starting punter spot also is up for grabs after the departure of Jim Laney, who averaged 43.9 yards per boot last season.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.

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