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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 108: Eastern Michigan

The losses continued to mount: 10 of them. And the losses were again routinely ugly: most by significant margins, including some so large they force you to double-check with another source to test their veracity. And the defense was even worse than it was a year ago: 527 points allowed, the second-highest total in school history. And the offense remained in neutral: 228 points scored, a touch more than in 2009 but still a total ranked among the bottom 13 teams in the country. And the program is still mired in less than neutral, though not quite reverse: E.M.U. can only go forward, making it hard to go in reverse. But who cares? Two wins! Strike up the band!

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Ypsilanti, Mich.

Nickname
Eagles

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 119

2010 record
(2-10, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 112

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Howard
  • Sept. 10
    Alabama St.
  • Sept. 17
    at Michigan
  • Sept. 24
    at Penn St.
  • Oct. 1
    Akron
  • Oct. 8
    at Toledo
  • Oct. 15
    at C. Michigan
  • Oct. 22
    W. Michigan
  • Nov. 5
    Ball St.
  • Nov. 12
    Buffalo
  • Nov. 19
    at Kent St.
  • Nov. 25
    at N.I.U.

Last year’s prediction

No one said it would be easy. And no one expects any miracles from English and the Eagles, even if many would be disappointed if E.M.U. does not at least put forth a more competitive effort against MAC competition. If we remove the specter of the 0-12 start from above English’s head, it may be somewhat liberating to enter a season without major expectations, when all is asked of you is to show progress, any semblance of progress. Having said that, I don’t expect to see too much improvement when it comes to wins and losses. Not to say the Eagles are going 0-12 again; I’d be more shocked by an 0-12 finish than a 6-6 finish. But Eastern Michigan still lacks the horses, and even if English can get this team to exceed its potential I doubt the Eagles are better than a four-win team. I do think this team can win two games, however, and even challenge for three or four with some luck.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Bad. Terrible, even. Just not as terrible as 2009, when the Eagles finished winless in Ron English’s debut season. In comparison, two wins is cause for celebration. And celebrate the Eagles did, and deservedly so. An October win snapped a long, long losing streak, one that dated back prior to English’s arrival – all the way back to the final game of 2008. Eighteen losses followed, though some could have gone Eastern Michigan’s way. Those losing days are somewhat behind the Eagles, who got the monkey of their backs with those two wins, but there remains an enormous amount of work to be done. Beginning with the defense, which has been abysmal. The offense racked up the yards – the ninth-most in program history – but failed to score points, which was often frustrating. Happiness was a first win for English and Eastern Michigan, but let’s not quite forget that the Eagles were still pretty bad in 2010.

High point So the two wins came against some pretty inferior competition. Eastern Michigan didn’t care who it beat on Oct. 16, when the Eagles sneaked past Ball State in overtime, 41-38, to snap that long losing streak. The celebration that ensued was one of the best moments of the entire college football season – it’s a pity few people paid attention.

Low point Among the uglier losses: by 38 points to Central Michigan, 53 to Ohio State, 46 to Vanderbilt, 35 to Toledo and, in the season finale, by 68 points to Northern Illinois. Again, when Eastern Michigan was bad, it was really, really bad. Again.

Tidbit Yes, Eastern Michigan’s periodic slaughters at the hands of Michigan has a title: locals call it the Battle of Washtenaw County, in honor of the region where both universities reside, though I’m of mind to rename the one-sided series the Massacre of Washtenaw County, seeing that the Wolverines hold a 9-0 edge over the Eagles. I’m very clever, you see. Citing Washtenaw as the battleground for these two schools makes sense, however, seeing that Ann Arbor is the county’s current seat and Ypsilanti the present site of its first settlement in 1809.

Tidbit (anniversary edition) This fall marks Eastern Michigan’s 120th year of football existence: the program was founded in 1891 and has fielded a team in every year since minus one, when World War II caused a cancellation of the 1944 season. The Eagles are the second-oldest program in the MAC, along with Akron, trailing only Miami (Ohio), which was established in 1888.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 QB Charlie Batch (Pittsburgh), DT Jason Jones (Tennessee), OG T.J. Lang (Green Bay), WR Kevin Walter (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Athletic members of the Fraternal Organization of Eagles
1. Arnold Palmer.
2. Gordie Howe.
3. Stan Musial.
4. Warren Spahn.
5. Red Schoendienst.

Coaching

Ron English (California ’90), 0222 after two seasons with the Eagles. The jury is not out – not by a long shot – but it’s never good to go winless in your first season nor win a total of two games over two years. Of course, it’s not as if English inherited a juggernaut; rather, he inherited one of the worst program in college football. Even after two years, English has an enormous amount of work ahead of him to merely bring this program to respectability, let alone to bowl play or into the conference championship conversation. On paper, he seems like a good fit for Eastern Michigan. English is most well-known for his five-year stint under Lloyd Carr at Michigan, first as the secondary coach (2003-5) before being promoted to defensive coordinator (2006-7). His two seasons as coordinator saw the Wolverines rank among the best in the F.B.S. at stopping the run, but he drew criticism for his unit’s struggles against the less-prototypical offenses, such as the spread. Fired as coordinator after the university hired Rich Rodriguez to replace Carr, English interviewed for the head coach spot at Louisville – a position that went to Tulsa’s Steve Kragthorpe – before eventually accepting the defensive coordinator position under Kragthorpe with the Cardinals. His other college coaching experience includes two separate stints at Arizona State (1994-95, 1998-2002) and two seasons at San Diego State (1996-97). This extensive defensive background, combined with his familiarity with the state, made English the obvious choice to take over the E.M.U. program. It’s been a poor start, but we expected nothing less.

Players to watch

Like the team as a whole, Alex Gillett was better in 2010. He still wasn’t great, and still not good enough to rank among the top of the MAC, but better. As a passer, Gillette still has a ways to go; as a runner, he’s already dangerous. Gillett led the Eagles in rushing last fall with 766 yards, topping the 100-yard mark three times with a season-best of 189 yards in the win over Ball State. To become a more complete quarterback – and to make this offense more complete – Gillett needs to become a better passer, and there are signs that he’s moving in that direction. Tell you what: if he makes a similar improvement from 2010 to 2011 than he made from 2009 to 2010, Gillett might end up being an all-conference quarterback. That’s if he continues to cut down on his interceptions and continues to become more accurate – hitting on 60 percent of his attempts, for example. The Eagles might also have found a nice backup in redshirt freshman Tyler Benz, who looks like a more prototypical passing quarterback.

Here’s guessing that Gillett’s favorite option in the passing game will be tight end Garrett Hoskins, who might not be a blocker but will be a weapon on the intermediate level. Gillett looked short often last fall, which is why departed starting tight end Ben Thayer led the team with 30 receptions. Hoskins has the athleticism to put up even better numbers. All he did as a sophomore was make 8 grabs for 217 yards, an average of 27.1 yards per grab, with a long of 73 yards. The top receiver is junior Kinsman Thomas, who made the most of his limited touches: only 26 receptions, but he parlayed those catches into a team-leading 473 yards – 18.2 yards per catch – and four scores.

Gillett might be forced to carry a heavier load on the ground without Dwayne Priest, who finished second on the team in yards (716) and led the way in touchdowns (8). Priest was steady, but what does sophomore Javonti Green bring to the table in his place? A test of the big play, as evidenced by his team-leading 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie. Green rushed for 277 yards over 9 games, averaging about six carries a game, so he might burst onto the scene if given more touches. As of now, however, he’s sharing time – if not riding behind – junior Dominique Sherrer, who rushed for47 yards in limited duty in 2010.

Say one thing about the offensive line: it’s bigger. The group is just heftier, which plays into what E.M.U. wants to do in the running game – grind out yards and wear teams down, keeping the defense off the field. The Eagles will call on junior Andrew Sorgatz, last year’s starting left guard, to move inside to center, where he’ll replace Eric Davis. More moves up front, at least as of today: left tackle Bridger Buche moves to right guard, Korey Neal from right to left tackle and Corey Watman, a seven-game starter at guard, to center as Sorgatz’s backup. That’s a mouthful. And that means two redshirt freshmen, Josh Woods and Campbell Allison, will start at left guard and right tackle, respectively.

Let’s be honest: the defense won’t be good in 2011. Even if it the defense knocks off a touchdown per game off its scoring average, for example – and that’s a huge decline – the Eagles would still finish 111th in scoring, if last season’s national results held. So there’s room for improvement but only so far forward this group can go, year three under English or otherwise.

So it’s all about limiting the bloodshed, which starts by getting after it against the run. There are issues at linebacker – more on that below – so the line must step up. Not holding my breath that this will happen. There is some returning experience, however. Brandon Slater and Kaloni Kashama return at tackle, and Jaber Westerman can provide some depth. So can senior Jasper Grimes, who got his first taste of meaningful action in 2010. Westerman can double at end, further increasing his value, though he’s taken a back seat to junior Devon Davis (14 tackles in 2010). Davis, if the current lineup stands, will team with junior Andy Mulumba at end. I mentioned stopping the run, but this group was equally poor at getting to the quarterback last fall. The Eagles need improvement in both categories, and I’m not altogether confident we’ll see that this fall.

Two starters must be replaced off a secondary that – believe it or not – was just bad defending the pass as the front seven was stopping the run. The ugliest number? The Eagles allowed 32 passing touchdowns and made only a pair of interceptions. Abysmal. Perhaps a slight changing of the guard will help matters. Ryan Dowand left his free safety spot as the team’s active leader with nine interceptions; the Eagles have two options, seniors Latarrius Thomas and Willie Williams, to step into the starting lineup. Williams was a bigger piece of the puzzle last fall, but Thomas played with the first-team defense for much of the spring. Martavius Caldwell (45 tackles, 4 for loss) is back at strong safety and Marcell Rose (one of those two interceptions) is back at cornerback, with sophomore Marlon Pollard currently ahead of Ja’ Ron Gillespie in the race to replace Arrington Hicks opposite Rose.

Don’t expect any miracles on defense. Don’t expect anything more than just a slight improvement, which doesn’t bode well for Eastern Michigan’s chances overall. But you can’t overestimate the importance of another year in this defensive system.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker Eastern Michigan lost leading tacklers Neal Howey and Tim Fort, who finished one-two on the team in stops – in Fort’s case, despite missing the four games on the year. That leaves senior Marcus English (37 tackles) as the lone holdover, increasing the importance of him remaining healthy and on the field. English could also start on the strong side, as he has on occasion in the past, but putting junior Matt Boyd in that spot would allow E.M.U. to get their two best, most experienced linebackers on the field at the same time. There is no real answer on the weak side. Nate Paopoa? He has the name of a linebacker, but Paopao, a senior, hasn’t played much at all in each of the last two seasons. Another option is junior Justin Cudworth, but he’s even less experienced. This lack of depth is an issue across the board, in fact, though slightly less so in the middle: Colin Weingrad earned some snaps last fall, and should be the starter next season. Why not give Weingrad a shot at outside linebacker?

Game(s) to watch

I see two clear wins to start the year, followed by two clear losses. But the potential is there for a nice start, with two F.C.S. teams to start the year and Akron opening up MAC play. I also see a winnable November, so there’s plenty to like about the schedule overall.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Hey, the Eagles are getting better. Not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but a little better each day – not much better each day, just a little better. And that’s music to our ears: Eastern Michigan has been bad for far too long, an inexcusable length of awfulness, really, that defies any attempts at explanation. All that matters now is that this team looks not terrible – not great, not very good, not even just plain old good, but not terrible – and thanks to an easier schedule should have no problem exceeding last season’s win total. I even think E.M.U. can get to four wins, which would represent another step forward for the program. Forget that two of those wins, if four is the final total, will come against a pair of F.C.S. opponents. About the schedule: it’s far from imposing, the two Big Ten teams notwithstanding. Well, it’s not imposing on paper; it’s still very hard to project just how good – or how bad, depending on your viewpoint – the Eagles will be in 2011. Is it ridiculous to get behind a team that has won two games in two years? Yeah, probably. The schedule still looks smooth, however, and the offense has the pieces to make a nice improvement over the last two seasons. The defense remains the biggest issue, and will keep this team from doing anything more than just make a game or two improvement in the win column, but I do see signs of life in Ypsilanti.

Dream season For the first time since 1995, Eastern Michigan wins six games in a season.

Nightmare season If a lack of any improvement would be disheartening, a return to 0-12 — though very hard to believe — would be an absolute nightmare.

In case you were wondering

Where do Eastern Michigan fans congregate? Not a lot to share here. Do check out the Eagles Nest, and the message boards at MLive.com and ScoutEasternMichigan.com.

Word Count

Through 13 teams 34,293.

Up Next

Who is No. 107? The city housing tomorrow’s university is spelled one way on its official seal, but another way in the City Charter.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    San Jose State…Seal has the accent on the E, the charter does not.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    No issues with the rankings until the past two days.

    Western Kentucky has a running game, much more highly regarded recruiting class, and they were within a touchdown of winning 4 more conference games last year. I also think they have a solid coach. They ended the season against a conference power and were tied headed into the fourth quarter.

    EMU has an offensive line in disarray, questionable coaching and they ended their season against a conference power and were blown out 71-3. They did have the foresight to schedule Howard and Alabama St.

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