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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. 119: Eastern Michigan

This was awkward. So was Eastern Michigan's 0-12 finish in Ron English's first season.

Imagine being Ron English. You’ve worked hard all of your adult life to reach this moment: your first head coach position on the highest level of college football. You’ve practiced that first locker room speech — the pep talk right before the season opener — countless times, you’ve preached to your team the importance of responsibility, fortitude, confidence. So you lose the season opener. No one expected Eastern Michigan to play for the national title, after all, and there are 11 games to go. Then you lose again. And again. And again. And before you know it, you’re 0-12, winless, skunked, shutout, and facing the specter of the worst start for a head coach in F.B.S. history. Now you’re the one needing that pep talk. What a difference a year makes.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Ypsilanti, Mich.

Nickname
Eagles

Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 113

2009 record
(0-12, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 119

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Army
  • Sept. 11
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Sept. 18
    Central Mich.
  • Sept. 25
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 2
    Ohio
  • Oct. 9
    at Vanderbilt
  • Oct. 16
    at Ball St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 30
    Toledo
  • Nov. 13
    at Western Mich.
  • Nov. 20
    at Buffalo
  • Nov. 27
    Northern Illinois

Last year’s prediction

Will this newfound self-worth translate into an improved product on the field? Perhaps not in wins and losses – not right away – but it will create a more competitive, tougher Eagle team, one that fans can appreciate after years of subpar play. I can easily see, based on how the E.M.U. offense played at times last fall, this team reaching five wins; the Eagles haven’t won five games since 1995. However, the more logical prediction is a repeat of last year’s 3-9 mark, with an above-average shot at four wins.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Yikes. Let’s give English a little bit of credit: Eastern Michigan was not talented in 2009, nor has the program had the requisite talent to challenge for MAC titles in years. But the program truly hit rock bottom in English’s first season: a new school record for losses in a season, winless for the first time since 1981, second-most points allowed in school history, 116th in total offense and 106th in total defense. Western Kentucky may have been the worst team in the country in 2009, but Eastern Michigan was not far behind — if behind at all.

High point E.M.U. experienced flashes of stellar play, such as in a 27-24 loss at Northwestern on the season’s second weekend. Northwestern iced the game with a late field goal, but the Eagles showed good spirit in overcoming a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to tie the game with less than three minutes remaining.

Low point The Eagles allowed a few in-conference games to get away from them, losing by 48 at Central Michigan, by 44 at Northern Illinois and by 26 at Toledo. The first two defeats, which came against future bowl participants, showed how far E.M.U. has to go before competing in the MAC.

Tidbit Eastern Michigan had the nation’s best pass defense in 2009. Wait, what? Yes: E.M.U., allowing only 150.5 yards per game, led the country in defending the pass. And it meant nothing. Why? Because teams ran at will on the Eagles, to the tune of 276.8 yards per game. That’s ranked 120th… worst. It marked the first time in N.C.A.A. history — to the best of my knowledge — that a team has been best in the country against the pass and worst against the run. Why pass when you can run?

Tidbit (inexperience edition) E.M.U. played a total of 10 true freshmen in 2009, the seventh-highest total in the country. Eight of those rookies started at least one game, the second-most in the country. (Both total trail Texas A&M, which played 18 freshmen and started 11.) The Eagles were also one of only three teams in the F.B.S. to start a true freshman quarterback, joining Wyoming and Kent State.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 QB Charlie Batch (Pittsburgh), DT Jason Jones (Tennessee), OG T.J. Lang (Green Bay), CB Chris Robertson (Cleveland), WR Kevin Walter (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Top five nicknames in E.M.U. history
1. Normalites. Referring to E.M.U.’s roots as a teachers college.
2. No Names. Like the old Miami defense.
3. Men from Ypsi. Too inclusive. Could mean anyone from Ypsilanti.
4. Hurons. Played a large role in “Last of the Mohicans.”
5. Eagles. Yawn.

Coaching

Ron English (California ’90), 0-12 after one season 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. Of course, it’s not as if English inherited the 1985 Chicago Bears. However, it’s hard to imagine E.M.U. being any worse than it was last season. English clearly 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 annually 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. This coming season will tell if progress was made last season despite the woeful record.

Key losses

Offense Quarterback Andy Schmitt missed the final nine games of his senior season due to injury; with him went any chance of E.M.U. competing in the MAC West. Schmitt wasn’t playing the best football of his career when he went down in September — five interceptions, compared to eight in all of 2008 — but he had the ability to force teams to at least respect the pass against the Eagles. Schmitt’s finest season came in 2008: 2,648 yards, a 15-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 62.6 percent completion percentage. In fact, Schmitt’s completion percentage never dipped below 61.5 percent in each of his four seasons with the program. In comparison, the two quarterbacks replaced him in 2009 combined to complete 50.4 percent of their attempts.

Jacory Stone, the team’s leading receiver from 2008-9, also found his production decrease without Schmitt in the lineup. Stone had 15 receptions through the first three weeks of the season; he had 17 grabs the rest of the way. In 2008, however, Stone ranked among the most productive receivers in the MAC. He finished that year with 88 receptions for 943 yards and 3 scores — totals highlighted by an 18-reception performance in a November loss to Temple. The Eagles must also replace the right side of their offensive line, where Andy Fretz (guard) and Stephen Johnson (tackle) were lost to graduation. Fretz appeared in 46 games for the Eagles, all starts.

Defense Eastern Michigan must replace its leading tackler, most explosive pass rusher and leading play maker in the secondary. End Brandon Downs will be the most difficult to replace. The 2009 team M.V.P. was the only Eagle to post more than two sacks on the year — he finished with 7.5, to go with 12.5 tackles for loss. Joining him on the E.M.U. front seven was the undersized weak side linebacker Andre Hatchett, the lone E.M.U. non-punter — love that distinction — to earn all-conference honors in 2009. His 113 tackles, a new career-best, paced the Eagles and ranked 23rd nationally. In the backfield, strong safety Chris May’s six interceptions accounted for half of the team’s total output. May had a two-interception game at Michigan, and his pick against Ball State allowed Eastern Michigan to take what seemed to be a commanding two-touchdown lead. The Eagles lost, of course.

Players to watch

The Eastern Michigan offensive line, hampered by injuries in 2009, hopes increased depth will lead to enhanced production in 2010. The Eagles do return a number of players with starting experience, led by seniors Dan DeMaster and Eric Davis. DeMaster will likely move positions in 2010: he lined up at left tackle last season, but will move inside to right guard as a senior. DeMaster’s move was predicated on the return of junior Bridger Buche from injury; Buche started on the left side in 2008 but missed all of last season with a hip injury. Davis will continue to line up at center, where he made nine starts a year ago, while sophomore Andrew Sorgatz — a surprise starter in all 12 games as a true freshman — will continue to start at left guard. Corey Neal, a reserve left tackle last fall, is the favorite to replace Johnson at right tackle, though Brian Moore, a two-game starter in 2009, is also an option.

Let’s give sophomore quarterback Alex Gillett credit for his ability to make plays with his feet, even if he lacks polish as a passer. Gillett made three starts in 2009 as a true freshman, replacing an ineffective Kyle McMahon, who in turn replaced an injured Schmitt. Gillett finished his debut campaign with 484 yards rushing, second on the team, but his inability to maintain a level of consistency in the passing game kept E.M.U. one-dimensional. (In addition, considering how often E.M.U. was playing from behind, not having a capable thrower under center was crippling.) He’ll improve upon his sub par numbers (three touchdown, seven picks, 49.6 percent completion percentage); how much improvement may dictate how well E.M.U. performs on offense. He’ll get a nice hand from senior running back Dwayne Priest, who led the team — a set new career highs — with 633 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns in 2009. Eastern Michigan fans are also excited to see redshirt freshman Ben Axon in action; Axon, a former South Carolina recruit who enrolled at E.M.U. late in the 2009 recruiting cycle, will open the year as Priest’s top reserve.

From front to back, the defense is sorely lacking in play makers. All problems, of course, stem from the front four’s inability to stop the run. Perhaps with an added year of experience, another summer in the weight room and the motivation that comes with being manhandled on a weekly basis, the three returning starters — tackle Brandon Slater and ends Javon Reese and Brad Ohrman — will fare better in 2010. Ohrman, a junior, actually started as an undersized tackle in 2009, but he’ll move to a more natural end position this fall as a replacement for Downs. Stepping in at tackle in his stead is senior Ryan Leonard, who played well (27 tackles, 7.5 for loss) as a reserve in 2009. The interior combination of Leonard and Slater will provide E.M.U. with more size, which is a good thing. Linebackers Marcus English and Tim Fort hope the added beef will allow them to stay cleaner. English, who missed six games last fall, will lead the team in tackles from his middle linebacker spot.

Don’t allow the strong pass defense numbers to fool you, as mentioned earlier: if teams were so inclined, they could pick E.M.U. apart with the pass. If the Eagles can make an improvement against the run — as they hope to do — it will be important that a player like Ryan Downard, a senior, do a solid job replacing May at strong safety. Downard started three games in 2009, playing in four over all, before breaking his arm in the week leading up to the game against Temple. He had 14 tackles and an interception while healthy. Downard could be one of four seniors drawing starting assignments in the E.M.U. secondary. A second would be free safety Latarrius Thomas, who is competing with junior Martavius Cardwell at free safety. One would think Cardwell, second on the team in stops last fall with 105, would be the unquestioned starter, but Thomas held the top spot during spring practice. Arrington Hicks has one cornerback spot locked down, while Brandon Pratt currently stands behind Marcell Rose, a junior, on the depth chart.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver A steady receiving presence could help Gillett immensely as he grows as a passer. One such target should be senior tight end Ben Thayer, who finished second on the team with 29 receptions in 2009. He is the most proven receiving weapon on the roster, though E.M.U. does return three players who also tallied double-digit grabs a year ago. The first is Kinsman Thomas, who had 12 receptions for 255 yards — including a 77-yard scoring grab against Arkansas — over the final five games of the season. The sophomore will battle Nick Olds, also a sophomore, for one starting spot in Eastern Michigan’s base three-wide receiver set. Trey Hunter, with five starts in 2009, is the most experienced returning player at wide receiver, though that won’t necessarily guarantee him of a starting role; as the Eagles enter the summer, he’s tied up with sophomore Corey Manns in a fight for playing time. In an effort to boost the talent talent, English signed four receivers — two from Florida — in his 2010 recruiting class.

Game(s) to watch

The most important game of the season may be the first: Army, at home. Beyond setting a good tone for the season, English’s losing record will loom larger and larger the longer his losing streak becomes. E.M.U. will play cupcake for Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Virginia, though the final pair are not necessarily blowout defeats for the Eagles.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. E.M.U. is not there yet, nor am I convinced the program will ever win a MAC title under English, but last season’s pain will lead to a better product in 2010.

Dream season Last season’s ugliness leads to Eastern Michigan’s finest season since 1995: 5-7, 4-4 in the MAC.

Nightmare season Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does: winless, 0-12. Actually, that’s just as bad. But it’s worse.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 118? Our next school’s home city also houses the museum honoring America’s oldest sports car.

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Comments

  1. Dave says:

    A couple of things to add from a handicapper that actually follows EMU a bit:

    1) some decent JUCO talent has been brought in.

    2) Schmitt was having a bad season when he went down because the spread O he is built for was scrapped for a nondescript “pro-style” scheme that at first more closely resembled Lloyd Carr’s at UM.

    3) It was interesting to me to see assistant Ty Wheatley bolt for a job elsewhere. Wheatley wants to move up the ladder fast, and I believe he sees English as doomed. Though EMU’s admin will give Ron plenty of time. They probably wouldn’t fire English without Lloyd Carr’s approval. Carr was consulted by the EMU bigwigs to right the ship.

    I think English is a rotten coach. Enough new meat has been brought in to raise EMU to MAC mediocrity(not success) sometime in 2011. But I think English will screw it up.

  2. [...] men's golf, NCAA tournament, preview, recruiting — cmadler @ 4:35 pm Here’s another football preview, this one courtesy of Pre-Snap Read. I think they get this one about right, though if the season [...]

  3. Chippewayne says:

    MAC teams should know better than to hire U-M coordinators to take their head coaching jobs. (see Mike DeBord’s record) I hope former MSU quarterbacks do well as MAC head coaches.

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