Eastern Michigan's football program has existed for 39 years. Of those 39 years, the program has only produced six winning seasons, the last in 1995. The program is also just five years removed from a winless 0-12 season in 2009.
But that was the old Swoops! This is the new regime!
Well, technically, anyway.
EMU faces off against Florida for the first time in almost exactly a decade on Saturday, five days shy of years to the day after the Gators defeated Eastern Michigan 49-10 in The Swamp. The Eagles enter this season with a new coach at all nine coaching positions. Chris Creighton assumes the head coaching role after a fine tenure at Drake, where he shared the Pioneer Football League titles in 2011 and 2012.
Breaking down what Eastern Michigan will bring to the table against the Gators was tough to do because this new staff hasn't been around long enough to solidify tendencies. But I was able to speak with Hustle Belt contributor Carter Adler, who also runs his own Eastern Michigan blog over at Eagle Totem, and he was kind enough to lend me some of his insight as to what the Gators could see going into their first real game of the season.
(Please, God, let us have this one).
Adler began our conversation by noting that Creighton is the first head coach with previous head coaching experience that EMU has hired in almost two decades. Ron English, the former EMU head coach, brought a very stubborn style of coaching to the program; he played a traditional "line up across from your man and get the better of him" style for each defensive assignment. This led to a lot of losses, as he never adjusted his style of coaching to the type of talent on his team: English spent five years with EMU, and the Eagles went 11-46 in those five years.
In comes Creighton, who Adler describes as much more of a "get the most talent out of your group" kind of coach. As if scouting Creighton's tendencies weren't difficult enough at a new university, he's never really carried the same philosophy year-to-year.
In the lone game we have to break down, last week's opener versus Morgan State, EMU gave up nearly 500 yards of offense and still managed to win the game. The Swoops will base themselves out of a 3-4 look with their main point of attack coming from junior Pat O'Connor, who recorded three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble last Saturday. EMU's defense will go as O'Connor goes.
In a 3-4, there has to be consistent disruption of the pocket in order to have success in the secondary. If Florida can occupy O'Connor, it will leave Jeff Driskel a clean pocket, as EMU didn't show much out of the blitz on Saturday. Ike Spearman, the team's leading tackler from a year ago at the linebacker position, was held out of EMU's first game with a leg injury. It's unknown whether he'll be able to suit up against Florida, but if there's any chance at all for success on defense, he'll need to be in there.
Not much went right for the Eagles' defense outside of O'Connor, and Adler attributed that to a lack of familiarity with assignments. Miscommunications and misplacements were the reasons for most of those conceded yards, but it's something that can be corrected. It seems Creighton's certainly trying to run more combo coverage schemes to limit deep passes. But again, the new assignments haven't clicked yet, and that's evident from the 34-, 46-, and 75-yard touchdown passes MSU was able to complete.
If there's any hope for keeping Saturday's game close, it would be for EMU to create and capitalize off turnovers. Pudge Cotton (GREAT name) is the most athletic player on Eastern Michigan's defense. The senior safety was buried at the end of the depth chart under English, but Creighton seems to have let him loose in the secondary. He'll be the playmaker if there is one.
There isn't much of a complexity to breakdown with EMU's defense at this point. Without Spearman, it's simple: Block O'Connor and you get to run the ball however and wherever you want. If you're wondering whether to take the over on Florida's rushing corps gaining over 300 yards on the day, I'd say take it.
As for the offense, it, too, has its flaws ... but it also has more strengths than the defense.
You're may have read about how Eastern Michigan will play in a two-quarterback system; I'll put that to rest right here. When asked about the split time, Adler said it was nothing more than starter Reginald Bell Jr. (another GREAT name) being a little shaken up, and the team having confidence in their back up Brogan Roback. (Fun fact about Mr. Roback: he is the first and only four-star recruit to ever commit and choose Eastern Michigan.) (Funner fact about EMU: Roback and former Penn State/LSU player Rob Bolden sit behind true freshman Bell on the QB depth chart.)
Bell should remain the starter for EMU's game versus Florida, but if things get out of hand, don't expect Creighton to keep him out there with two other capable quarterbacks on the roster. All three might get their chance to play against Florida on Saturday if the score gets out of hand.
EMU brings a run-heavy, shotgun-based offense to the table, which explains the heavily one-sided 292 rushing yards to 99 passing yards they racked up against Morgan State. From what I've seen, it doesn't look like a zone-read based offense, but it certainly features heavy emphasis on the quarterback keeping defenses honest with designed runs. Bell is a Los Angeles native with a background in track where he won the Los Angeles City Championship in the 110 huddles - Florida defenders probably shouldn't go for his knees, as his instinct is to jump.
It's unclear whether the gameplan limited his arm or his arm limited the gameplan, but whatever the reason, EMU didn't record a single passing play for more than 14 yards, and that includes YAC. Most of Bell's passes were right at the line of scrimmage with screens, out routs and curls. With no big passing plays recorded against middling MEAC team Morgan State, I doubt the Eagles have much success against Florida.
The biggest strength of the EMU roster is in their rushing attack. If you remember, I previously noted how English brought a tough, traditional form of football to EMU for five seasons. This recruiting cycle left Creighton with stout, experienced offensive linemen and an above average group of ball carriers.
Though the team goes with a three-back rotation, senior Bronson Hill should get majority of the carries, as he's shown to be the more complete back. Ryan Brumfield will spell Hill's carries with quickness, but his speed isn't world class or anything. Adler also mentioned how EMU will feature their full back Darius Jackson (third GREAT football name) in a variety of ways. He was second on the team in carries and receptions last Saturday, and seems to be their focal point.
I ended my conversation with Adler (who's a great dude, by the way) by simply asking him what his expectations were for Saturday.
He then painfully reminded me of past woes by saying, "Well, if Florida comes out and plays like they did at the end of last season..." but came back to reality and admitted this one could, and probably will, get ugly. I asked him if he thought the 37.5 point spread was the right number, he simply responded, "If they play like the Florida of old, I'd be more comfortable with 50."
And now, for what you're here for:
The Top Five Names on Eastern Michigan's Roster
5. FB Darius Jackson
4. QB Reginald Bell Jr.
3. DB Youseef Barakat
2. DB, Pudge Cotton
1. DL Lion King