After starting 2017 with wins over Charlotte and Rutgers, much of Eastern Michigan’s mid-season might be characterized with three words -- OH, SO CLOSE!!
The heartbreak started with an overtime loss at home to Ohio. Five straight losses (by a total of 23 points) followed before EMU finished with three victories in its last four outings. Just one more win and Eastern would have been bowl eligible.
Despite the . . .
Here is a look at what will roll out of “The Factory” (i.e. Rynearson Stadium) in 2018.
EMU 2017 RECORD: 5-7 (3-5 MAC)2017
PRESEASON POLL: Fourth in the Western Division
HEAD COACH: Chris Creighton – third season (15-34 at EMU, 154-80 overall)
➤ The number one priority for Creighton and offensive coordinator Aaron Keen is finding a quarterback for the departed Brogan Roback. Replacing one of the best quarterbacks in EMU’s recent history will be a tall task in deed. Fifth-year senior Tyler Weigers and sophomore Issac Stiebeling are among the contenders . Weigers comes from Iowa with one year of eligibility left. He was in on the battle for the Hawkeyes starting QB job a season ago but fell short. Steibling saw action late last season and engineered the game-winning drive in EMU’s finale against Bowling Green.
➤ “We don’t have this returning starter … but what we do have is a really talented group,” said Crighton, who noted a total of four quarterbacks joined the QB room since January. “We’ve just got to do a great job deciding which guy (it’s) going to be. … We’re very comfortable with the choices that we have.
➤ Whoever gets the QB job, he should be supported by solid run game. Seniors Ian Ericksen who gained 810 yards a season ago and Shaq Vann (520 yards in 2017) can carry most of the ground game load. Also, sophomore Tyler Lyle will get his chance at full back.
➤ That group will be running behind a deep and experienced offensive line.
“We have, really, our entire three-deep of offensive linemen back from last year,” Creighton said. “These guys are chomping at the bit to lead this team. … A lot of our success is going to be dictated by how those guys perform.
Among those up front is center Dakota Tallman, one of the more underrated lineman in the MAC. He is flanked at LG by senior Jeremy Hickey and senior RG Jimmy Leatiota who was second team all-MAC a season ago. Junior RT Steve Nielsen is also part of a talented unit.
Issac Holder returns to his favorite position after just nine catches a season ago. Senior Eddie Daugherty registered 10 receptions a season ago.
“We’re excited about that group,” Creighton said of the receivers.
➤ Defensive coordinator Neal Neatherty has been putting together one of the top defenses in the MAC, and this year’s contingent has the experience to again be a force. “We do have a lot of guys returning (and) we’ve worked on our depth,” Creighton said, adding that the Eagles defense “is super excited about … being even better than we were last year.”
➤ EMU finished 2017 second in scoring defense (23.3 ppg) and total defense (363.6 ypg).
➤ It begins up front, led by junior DL Maxx Crosby the team’s most valuable player a season ago and a First Team All-MAC selection with 57 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for losses and 11 quarterback sacks. He also forced four fumbles and had a pair or fumble recoveries. Senior NT Tyler LaBarbera and junior DT Desmond Kelly will be counted on this season, especially against the running game
➤ The linebackers are experienced and strong, led by seniors Jeremiah Harris second-team all-MAC as he had 45 total tackles in which 12.5 tackles for losses along with six sacks an interception, and forced two fumbles. Junior Jaylen Pickett will see more playing time this season, and fellow junior Kyle Rachwal returns after 67 total tackles, along with 6.5 tackles for losses in 2017.
➤ The secondary returns four starters. Senior FS Justin Moody had 50 total tackles and an interception,while junior DB Brody Hoying totaled 78 stops and a pair of interceptions last season. Junior corners Kevin McGill and Ross Williams both saw limited action and will be counted on this season.
➤ The Eagles kicking game brings back both of kicking specialists. Junior PK Paulie Fricano connected on 15-of-21 field goals last season, including three in the win at Rutgers. He was 5-for-5 in the final games of 2017. Meanwhile, sophomore punter Jake Julien averaged 42.6 yards per boot and had nine punts of 50 yards or more. Sexton will begin the season returning kickoffs, while senior Blake Banham figures on punt returns
The Eagles open at home on August 31 against FCS opponent Monmouth before heading on the road for four of their next five games. That stretch includes trips to Purdue and San Diego State.
Eastern Michigan’s MAC schedule opens on September 15 at Buffalo. Two big West Division challenges -- Northern Illinois and Toledo -- are at home. However, EMU meets Western Michigan in Kalamazoo.
Along with their battle against the Bulls, the Eagles “crossover” games against the East are home against Akron and at Kent State to close the season
While Northern Illinois and Toledo are favorites in West, Eastern Michigan has the defense to hang with just about anybody in the MAC. The Eagles may rely on running game early, but challenging for a division title and/or getting to a bowl could hang on developing an effective passing game with some new faces.