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April 16, 2011

Offense explodes in CMU Spring Game

The conditions were not ideal for a spring game as there was wind and rain and the temperature dipped into the 30's during the later parts of the evening, but the Central Michigan Chippewas finished off their spring season on Friday night in excellent fashion. The format was different this year, with the offense (Maroon) outscoring the defense (White) 53-28.

Head coach Dan Enos liked what he saw out of his team, but he also stated that there are certainly areas where improvement is needed.

"As a coaching staff, we like this format. We get a lot of situations in. We had a chance to look at our kicking game live. We saw our team in all phases - base, red zone, 3rd down - and put guys in situations with people in the stands and coaches off the field to see how they respond. Like any other spring game, there was the good, the bad, and the ugly. At times, I didn't think we tackled very well on defense, but also we saw some running backs make some people miss and do some good things. We still have to get better in a lot of different areas, but overall I loved our team's attitude and it was a good night."

There was more scoring on the first four plays of the 2011 Spring Game than there was in the entire 2010 Spring Game. The final last year was 3-0, with those points coming on a late field goal. Paris Cotton opened up the scoring on the fourth play of the game when he took an inside handoff, bounced it outside and kept running for 51 yards and a touchdown.

Cotton also had a 65 yard punt return for a touchdown late in the evening, showcasing his speed and versatility even more.

And Cotton was not the only running back to have a good night. Freshman Austin White, who joined the program in January after transferring from Michigan, broke a 48 yard touchdown run on a play that was extremely similar to the one that led to Cotton's touchdown run. Zurlon Tipton, who was the first RB on the field in the first full contact session, had a nine yard touchdown run that was equally impressive as he broke 5-6 tackles on his way to paydirt.

Surprisingly, the back who got the most carries was sophomore Tim Phillips. Phillips fumbled on his first carry of the night, but bounced back to have six carries for 41 yards. The combined rushing totals for the running backs were 17 carries for 183 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Coach Enos said he was impressed with his stable of backs and said they have really worked hard this spring to put more of an emphasis on running the ball.

Of course, many eyes were on the quarterbacks, especially Ryan Radcliff, the junior who returns as the starter, and Alex Niznak, the highly touted freshman from Ithaca (Mich.).

There were highlights and lowlights from all four quarterbacks, who were in yellow jerseys, signaling that they could only be touched down, not tackled. All four made a few impressive throws, despite throwing into a strong wind and a light rain. There were some mistakes as well due to those elements. The other two that are in a battle with Niznak for the backup job are sophomore A.J. Westendorp and senior Brandon Fricke.

The quarterbacks combined totals were 15-24 for 153 passing yards and one passing TD. They also had three carries for 15 yards.

Radcliffe finished the scrimmage with 113 yards, going 10-15 on his attempts. He also threw 1 touchdown pass. He made several impressive throws down the sideline, including an 11 yard completion to Jerry Harris for a first down and another nice throw on a 17 yard completion to Reggie Brown that took the offense down to the one-yard line.

Westendorp came in with the second team before the other two backup quarterbacks and played one more series than the other two. He finished 5-7 for 40 yards. Fricke and Niznak each played one series, but neither completed a pass. Niznak went 0-2 and Fricke did not attempt a pass during full contact.

After fumbling one of his early snaps, Niznak did have a very nice run from the 10 yard line to the five, where he was touched down. Had there been full contact for the quarterbacks, Niznak would have scored. He also had a nice scramble that would have ended in a TD pass had it not been for a drop on the other end of that throw. The Ithaca native also had an impressive throw in drills where he dropped a throw into a Cover 2 right over the hand of a cornerback and outside of a safety. However, he forced a pass to a slant route through coverage that probably should have been intercepted.

Enos said the backup quarterback job is still going to be up for grabs heading into fall camp. He added that he is impressed with where Radcliff is at and with his improved grasp of the offense.

"The backup quarterback position won't be solidified until fall. Radcliff continues to impress. Niznak is overwhelmed but he's going to be a very good player and this spring has been great for him."

When asked about where the quarterbacks stand on the depth chart, Enos said that Radcliff was the starter and that Westendorp and Fricke were tied at the number two spot, with Niznak closely trailing. Enos also said that it is yet to be determined whether or not Niznak will redshirt.

Jerry Harris led the receivers with four catches for 43 yards. Cody Wilson had three catches for 34 yards and was on the receiving end of the touchdown pass from Radcliff.

There was not much of a blitz package put in for this spring game, but Enos stated after the game that that will most likely change next season.

"Defensively, we're going to try to create more pressure and more negative yardage plays. Our blitz package will expand in the fall."

As the Chippewas head into the summer, they still have several issues that they need to address. Coach Dan Enos knows this better than anyone and he talked about it when he met with the media after the game.

"We have a lot of question marks and we have a lot of guys competing for jobs. We have to find a punter, we have to find a kickoff guy, I think we found a field goal kicker. We've got to find a backup quarterback and we have to find another wide receiver to complement Cody...I think we still have a lot of things to answer, but as I've been telling everybody, the attitude of our football team and our mindset and our focus has been very good and we practice like we've got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and we have to continue that through the offseason."

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