The headlines seem endless.
Jim McElwain is returning to coach in Florida for the first time since being fired from his job with the Gators in 2017.
Former Central Michigan coach Dan Enos is on the other side of the ball as an offensive coordinator.
Former player and assistant coach Butch Barry holds down the offensive line duties for the opposition.
Quarterback David Moore has a long-lasting relationship with Jarren Williams, his competition. Wide receiver Tyrone Scott knows the other team’s running back, DeeJay Dallas.
And, yes, these storylines surround the Miami Hurricanes, an ACC program that’s reloading under first-year coach Manny Diaz. On the other side, it’s all about the Chippewas and another first-year coach tasked with returning the team’s tradition to glory.
“This week was all about the preparation you put in to continue to get a little bit better, and that’s what we are striving for,” McElwain said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Quarterback Quinten Dormady, running back Jonathan Ward and defensive lineman Amir Siddiq are all still injured and won’t play against the Hurricanes. Tight end Joel Wilson is still recovering from an injury in Week 1 against Albany.
“No new updates,” McElwain said. “The guys who were injured are still injured. We haven’t had anything pop up.”
Moving past Akron
The Chippewas showed positive strides in nearly every aspect of the game in last weekend’s 45-24 victory over Akron. Moore threw for two touchdowns while running back Kobe Lewis chipped in three of his own and over 140 yards rushing.
For McElwain, he doesn’t care about the Mid-American Conference victory anymore. All sights are set on Miami – the upcoming task.
“They haven’t had a lot of success,” McElwain said of CMU, “so I think it was important that you learn from a win, as you do for a loss. More than that, how did it occur? It’s because of what you did in your preparation.
“We made some steps that way as a program, and we have to continue to move forward.”
During the recent week, McElwain was able to show his team the benefits of working hard in practice. He took clips from the game and from practice, put them on display in the film room and made it a point that they were the same formations and executions.
McElwain is doing everything in his power to take advantage of the “you play how you practice” slogan.
“We’re still working as a football team for these guys to understand that it’s OK to go hard every down, it’s cool to really work hard,” McElwain said. “We’ve got to continue to push, continue for them to understand that how you practice during the week is how you feel in the locker room after a game.”
Against the Zips, Moore was 20-of-31 for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
Lewis went for 146 rushing yards and three scores on 27 carries. Meanwhile, slot receiver Kalil Pimpleton had seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown.
“I had a conversation with Ward, the coaches about how important me stepping up was going to be for us to win the game,” Lewis said. “It was a big week of preparation. When you prepare hard, you get the outcome. It’s always a blessing to see.”
The opposing quarterback, Akron’s Kato Nelson, was sacked seven times.
McElwain said he was impressed with Moore’s ability to command the offense and lead the Chippewas against the Zips. Even though the Hurricanes are a much more difficult opponent, the approach McElwain wants Moore to take remains the same.
“For him, it’s just another opportunity to go out and play,” McElwain said. “Take advantage of every opportunity. You put a lot of work in to go play 12 or 13 games, so each time you get that chance, go out and enjoy it.”
Defensive end Troy Hairston added the defense, specifically the front seven, has to be prepared, improve on mistakes from last weekend and play their brand of football.
“We’re just going to play, rush the quarterback and do what we do on the front four,” Hairston said. “We’ll play like we did last week, contain them and do what we do best.”
Lewis said the 21-point victory in a conference battle at Kelly/Shorts Stadium gave everyone on the team confidence moving forward.
“We’re going to stay humble, but it was an eye-opener for us to see where we stand in the MAC,” the sophomore running back said. “We’ve got a long season ahead of us, and we look pretty good.
“I feel like we’re going to have a good year this year.”
McElwain knows Diaz, Enos
McElwain was quick to praise Diaz for his defense and Enos for his offense.
As a matter of fact, McElwain knows them both – all through that long, in-depth coaching tree.
When Diaz was at Mississippi State in 2010 as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, McElwain went against him as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Greg McElroy threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns to pace the No. 12 Crimson Tide to a win against No. 19 Mississippi State, 30-10.
In that game, however, Diaz was able to take away the run game. Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy, two of the premier backs in college football at the time, managed 18 carries for 53 yards and eight carries for 35 yards, respectively.
“He’s a very creative defensive mind,” McElwain said of Diaz. “He’s going to try to overload you from all different angles. He’s going to show one way, give it the other way. He does a great job in holding his safeties in coverage. They use their speed really well.”
McElwain was on his way out as Michigan State’s assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator following the 2005 season when Enos took a job to be the quarterbacks coach for the Spartans. McElwain and Enos crossed paths for about a week in East Lansing.
“I know they loved him there (at MSU),” McElwain said. “Coach (Nick) Saban thought he was a heck of a coach at Alabama when he was there.”
McElwain also received SEC crossover film from Enos’ offense as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Arkansas from 2015-17. At the same time, McElwain was at Florida as the head coach.
Those films taught McElwain plenty about Enos.
“I think this guy does a fantastic job with shifts, motions and getting you into what they want you in, and then calling the appropriate play to beat that coverage,” McElwain said. “He’s a guy that’ll try to run us out of the gym. He does a great job with his shots.”
Prepared for the ‘Canes
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyrone Scott isn’t shying away from the Hurricanes. He’s made nine receptions for 175 yards and two touchdowns this season, but he’s hungry for a team victory against one of the most storied programs in the country.
And Scott is banking on it to happen.
“I feel like this is going to be a statement game for us,” Scott said. “This is going to be the game we put something in the air for everybody. I’m really excited.”
Making his second career college start, Moore said he’s “super excited” to play a team from the ACC.
“We work really hard, and we’ve got a lot of talented guys, as well,” Moore said. “We’re looking to make our mark, for sure.”
Lewis and Hairston, on the other hand, didn’t have much to say about the matchup against Miami. Neither wanted to make bold predictions or go into detail.
“I think we’ll put up a good competition,” Lewis said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
“I think we’re looking to get better and improve,” Hairston said.
Even though Scott and Moore seem prepared for the task at hand, the Chippewas are still 30.5-point underdogs against Miami.
Nobody expects an upset.
McElwain admittedly told reporters that he has to catch himself from time to time when evaluating the program. Right now, he is working with starting first-year players at these positions – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, cornerback, linebacker and defensive end.
Experience is lacking, and it’s a young football team.
That aspect of the game took McElwain to one of his favorite movies, “What About Bob,” a 1991 comedy starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.
“It’s about baby steps,” McElwain said. “The frustration sometimes comes when these younger guys haven’t understood exactly how hard you have to go and how focused you have to be.
“Now, the consistency piece is what we are getting at.”
Stopping (or slowing down) Jarren Williams
Moore’s relationship with Miami’s quarterback, Williams, dates back years. Both players actively train with quarterback guru Quincy Avery.
Since Moore knows a lot about his competition, he’s been able to pass that off to the coaching staff and teammates.
Williams has been as good as any quarterback in college this year, completing 68-of-93 passes (73 percent) for 777 yards and six touchdowns and no interceptions. The only other players with six or more touchdowns, no interceptions and that high of a completion percentage this season are Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama).
McElwain fully understands the threat Williams presents.
“He’s calculated, knows when to take his shots and when to get rid of it,” McElwain said. “He’s going to keep growing in the offense and with their personnel. He’s starting to get his rhythm.”
However, looking back to the Week 0 loss to Florida, Miami’s offensive line allowed Williams to get sacked 10 times – a product of having two true freshmen starting on the line.
While left tackle Zion Nelson and right guard Jakai Clark are just freshmen, McElwain isn’t overlooking the talent they possess and the coaching abilities of Barry, the position group coach and a former Chippewa.
“You can’t just let them show up and take your lunch money,” McElwain said. “You have to be able to show them a little bit of things that are different and possibly confuse them. Maybe they’ll be a step slow here or there.”
Barry joined Diaz’s staff in January 2019 after spending the previous four campaigns with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. He worked with Enos at Central Michigan for five seasons (2010-14) and was a graduate assistant in 2002-03 after playing offensive line for the Chippewas. He earned Academic All-MAC honors as a senior.
If the Chippewas plan to disrupt Williams and his offense, it’ll start with beating the line through confusion, hesitation and maybe even a little trickery.
“I push our guys to be creative and look outside the box,” McElwain said. “Let’s try to hide it.”
Diaz’s disrupting defense
McElwain made it simple: “You can’t chase ghosts.”
What Diaz does on defense is special.
The defensive-minded head man will often show one formation, quickly take it away and then fire away with something totally new from a different spot on the field.
Diaz emphasizes mega overloads and forcing the opposing offensive line to work. As a quarterback, that style can cause a plethora of issues.
“They’ll be out to sharpen the knives in their drawer, but we just have to be prepared for it,” McElwain said. “And don’t chase ghosts offensively. That’s the biggest issue this week.”
To beat the defense, McElwain said it’ll be key to show CMU isn’t one dimensional. Miami has struggled to stop the passing game more than anything this season, while the run defense has been stellar.
The rushing defense has allowed just 69.3 yards per game, good for eighth-best in the nation. The passing defense ranks No. 60 overall, allowing 207.3 yards per contest.
“In our case, when we’re playing well, we have to run it when they think we are throwing it and throw when they think we’re going to run,” McElwain said. “The game sometimes dictates how you’re going to be.”
Operating successfully on offense doesn’t just rely on the quarterback and running back, it has everything to do with the offensive line.
As a young, inexperienced unit, McElwain’s line is focused on building for the future through learning to communicate and understand the accountability piece of the game.
Left tackle Deiyantei Powell-Woods and left guard Danny Motowski are true freshmen backups. While the other backups – right guard Tyden Ferris and right tackle Erik Ditzhazy – are redshirt freshmen.
“We’ve been getting guys a lot of reps behind them,” McElwain said. “We’ve put a lot of pressure on that unit and will continue to do that. I like those guys there. It’s about making yourself better in preparation.”
And, by the way, don’t forget about those sneaky, athletic wide receivers. Players like Pimpleton, Scott, JaCorey Sullivan and others could have an advantage over Miami’s young secondary after the Hurricanes had to replace two NFL safeties in Sheldrick Redwine and Jaquan Johnson.
“We’ve got a talented group, a very young group of receivers that are continuing to learn,” said wide receivers coach Kevin Barbay. “They want to be pushed and are learning the fine details.”
Goals for the game
It doesn’t matter if it’s football, a test in school or a job, McElwain said it’s important to compete. For CMU this weekend, the game against Miami is truly a chance to match itself with a speedy, talented, well-coached group.
“An unbelievable team,” McElwain added. “Look forward to it and embrace the moment.”
The goal, on the other hand, has everything to do with being proud of what ends up on film. In the 61-0 loss to Wisconsin, there wasn’t any pride.
McElwain doesn’t want that to happen again, not against Miami or anyone on the schedule. He’s not asking for a win. He’s not asking for a certain number of touchdowns.
The first-year coach just wants his team to be proud of the effort put out on the field at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
“I go back, it’s really a simple message, be proud of what you put on film,” McElwain said. “You put the effort into it, you put the time to learn what to do and how you do it. The biggest piece is the effort and how you’re trying to do it.
“Then we will take the film, learn from it and get to the next week.”
McElwain praises McKinnie-Harper
Cornerback Kyron McKinnie-Harper is a true freshman. He didn’t enroll early, meaning he got to Mount Pleasant in the middle of the summer.
Three weeks ago, he was stuck on special teams. Now, he’s a Division I starter at cornerback.
“Another true freshman that’s stepped up for us,” McElwain said. “We knew coming in that we had a special talent there.”
McKinnie-Harper is nowhere near a complete player, McElwain said. Right now, he’s just the top option for one of the cornerback positions.
But there’s potential.
A lot of potential.
McElwain said the true freshman from Cass Technical High School in Detroit needs to learn consistency in all aspects of the game, but he’s lengthy, has sneaky speed and is highly competitive.
“Playing the corner position, you got to have a true competitive nature,” McElwain said. “Sometimes, you’re going to get beat, yet you can’t let that affect your play. You have to bounce back and win the next one. He’s done a pretty good job of that.”
There are high hopes for McKinnie-Harper’s success in Mount Pleasant. McElwain added that the three-star product is slowly realizing how good he could be by the time his college career is complete.
“Each practice, he’s starting to understand, just maybe scratching the surface of how good he can be,” McElwain said.
Recruiting in Florida
McElwain started recruiting in the state of Florida in 1999 before the beginning of his first season at Louisville alongside head coach John L. Smith. McElwain was a wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator at the time.
Smith sent the Montana native down to Florida, and McElwain has recruited there ever since.
“Here’s the one thing people don’t realize. As a kid down there, they’ve got 30 days of spring practice,” McElwain said. “By the time a kid is a senior, he’s played five years of high school football. These kids are playing the game of football practically year-round.”
McElwain compared high school football in Florida to Texas. Some of the most competitive high schools in Florida are IMG Academy, St. Thomas Aquinas, Central, Northwestern, Lakeland, Carol City, Columbia, Armwood, Booker T. Washington, American Heritage and Deerfield Beach.
“You walk into some of the high schools in that state, and the football setup is like a college,” McElwain said. “The importance of it, the speed is crazy. There are a lot of players, it’s well-coached. In the state of Florida, football is really important.
“If those guys are good and know how to act, it helps the whole student body. The importance they put on it is real.”
Playing at Hard Rock Stadium
Don’t ask Hairston about going down to Hard Rock Stadium for a game. He doesn’t look at it any differently.
All the talk about how it’s a great experience to play against a “big program” in a “big stadium” doesn’t mean squat.
“I think Division I ball is an opportunity in itself,” Hairston said. “Anywhere we can play is an opportunity I’m grateful for.”
But McElwain is geeked.
“It’s always exciting,” he said. “It’s why you go into this; it’s why you do this – to be able to go into these big stadiums. It should be a lot of fun, and our guys should approach it that way.
“We’ll see what happens when we get there.”