MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Eight months of talk, weight-training sessions, long-term outlooks and preseason polls are in the past.
Now, it's time to get down to the business of actually playing football.
The Central Michigan Chippewas kicked off practice today, and the vibe is decidedly optimistic - perhaps more optimistic than in any of coach Dan Enos' four previous seasons at the helm.
"I think we have the best team we've had since I've been here," said Enos, whose team opens at home on Thursday, Aug. 28, with a non-league game against Chattanooga. "It's the most veteran team we've had since I've been here."
Nineteen starters return from a 6-6 team that won five of its last seven games in 2013 and finished 5-3 (tied for third) in the Mid-American Conference West Division.
Part of that deep reservoir of experience is due to the fact that the Chippewas were decimated by injuries a year ago, a turn of events that should now begin paying dividends.
"Through the decimation of the injuries we had last year we gained a lot of experience and I think we continued to grow as the season went on," Enos said. "Things don't always go as planned. In every game there's going to be adversity, in every season there's going to be adversity, and I think it's just a testament, the way we finished last year, that you've got a group of players who believe in each other, you've got a group of players who believe in their coaches, and you've got a group of coaches who believe in their players. It's a group that can hang in through that adversity and continue to have success."
Injuries claimed quarterback Cody Kater, tailback Zurlon Tipton, and left tackle Jake Olson in the 2013 opener at Michigan. Olson and Kater were lost for the season, while Tipton missed seven games. Among other notables lost to injury a year ago was defensive tackle Jabari Dean, who appeared in just two games after being named the Chippewas' Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012.
The silver lining? Several younger players gained valuable experience, and that will only help the Chippewas in both the short and long term.
Cooper Rush, Kater's eventual replacement at quarterback, posted a 56.7 pass completion percentage after taking over as the starter in week 3. Rush enters camp as the No. 1 signal-caller, while Kater, a senior who was ahead of Rush on the depth chart entering the 2013 season, is the backup.
"Anytime you bring back a quarterback who has played and has had some success you've got to feel really good about that," Enos said.
With Tipton on the sidelines last year, Saylor Lavallii ascended to the starting job at tailback and filled in admirably, rushing for 845 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. Lavallii, a junior, is back and is among a backfield corps that includes Michigan transfer Thomas Rawls along with returnees Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore and Anthony Garland.
The loss of Olson on the offensive line certainly stung the Chippewas, but, just as in the case at quarterback and running back, it provided an opportunity. Ramadan Ahmeti stepped in and posted 10 starts at the position a year ago, and the Chippewas return their entire starting offensive line -- a group that totals 91 career starts. Junior center Nick Beamish, who is on the Rimington Trophy Watch List, headlines the group.
Just one of CMU's 2014 MAC opponents, Buffalo, returns as many starters up front.
The premier piece to the offensive puzzle - and perhaps the entire team - is wideout Titus Davis. Enos tabbed Davis as the MAC's most explosive player and a good case could be made that the call is legit. Davis, a senior, ranks No. 1 among active college football receivers with an 18.9-yards-per-catch average, is on the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List for the second straight year, and last season earned CMU's Herb Deromedi Most Valuable Player Award.
"He's very talented, and his work ethic matches his talent, and you can't always say that about great players," Enos said. "He's one of the hardest workers on our football team. He practices hard every day, he's very competitive, and he's got a very high football IQ.
"Very rarely in the last three years do I remember Titus not knowing an alignment or an assignment or an adjustment on any route. He's got a very bright mind for this game."
On the other side of the ball, the Chippewas return a solid-and-getting-better corps up front led by Dean and Leterrius Walton. That group includes end Joe Ostman, who last year was the lone true freshman to see playing time.
"That's a great sign for the program," Enos said, adding that the Chippewas played about a half-dozen true freshmen in 2012 and at least double that number in 2011. "As we've grown in our program, we've gotten to redshirt guys more and more," he said. "Every time you redshirt guys, you're adding a dividend for the future."
Among the other premier names back from a defense that ranked fourth in the MAC a year ago are middle linebacker Justin Cherocci and cornerback Jason Wilson. Cherocci led the MAC in total tackles (121) and ranked 16th nationally in tackles per game (10.1).
"I think our defense has a chance to be the best it's been since I've been here, especially our front four, and I'm very excited about that," Enos said.