by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Eastern Michigan took a major step forward in 2011. In its first year (2009) under former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English, downtrodden EMU laid an eagle egg, going 0-12. The squad that English had inherited was too small, too slow, too thin, and too unskilled to make a game of it vs. just about anyone. Nine times in 2009 the hard-trying Eagles lost by double-digits; 7 times by 20 or more. It was not easy to tell that the hard-driving English was laying a foundation in Ypsilanti and building for the future. In 2010, Eastern notched two wins to close 2-10.

But after 2011, the “investment” made by English in the EMU team began paying dividends, as the Green and White finished 6-6, taking high-scoring eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois nearly to the gun in an 18-12 season-closing Eagle loss at DeKalb. In fact, Eastern needed just one victory in its last two games for bowl eligibility. Yes, EMU fell short. But by fighting the good fight to the end, Eastern has prepared itself to take a another shot at postseason play in 2012.

Granted, it must be acknowledged that 2011's list of six victims is not very impressive--Howard, Alabama State, Akron, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Buffalo. Not exactly Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. Still, the improvement of the Eagles was enormous. A bigger, tougher Eastern team in 2011 allowed only 24.3 ppg vs. 43.9 in 2010. Only 350.3 ypg in 2011 vs. 454.1. The gnarlier defense collected 23 sacks in 2011 vs. a meek 10 in 2010. However, the defense-building talents of English will be thoroughly tested in 2012.

Only five starters return from that much-improved 2011 stop unit that was 34th in total defense (49th vs. the run), a huge advance from the days when EMU used to be stampeded. The strength will be at LB, where three of the top four return, including sr. top tackler Justin Cudworth (right; team leader with 83 tackles last season). And the starting corners of sr. Marcell Rose and jr. Marlon Pollard (originally signed with UCLA) are of good quality for the MAC. Defensive line and safety are the main concerns of English, who has turned to the JC ranks for help up front. 6-2, 299 soph juco Cy Maughmer and 6-4, 276 soph juco Travis Linser both enrolled early and went through spring practice. Plus, 6-2, 319 sr. DT Devin Henderson has returned to add his bulk up front after missing last season due to academics. But while English appears to have replenished the EMU muscle up front after losing three DL starters from last season, that’s not the case in the deep secondary. As for his young safeties this year, English simply states, “We have a long way to go.” That’s a potentially ominous statement in the pass-happy MAC, especially considering that the Eagles snagged only five interceptions last season (only five teams had fewer).

Anticipating a potential drop-off in defense, EMU will be counting on its veteran offense (14th in rushing last season) to increase last year’s production of only 21.3 ppg (104th in the nation) and 127 ypg passing (117th). That improvement should be forthcoming, as eight starters return on offense, including sr. QB Alex Gillett (left), four starters in the OL led by sr. C Andrew Sorgatz, top WR Nick Olds (24 recs., 3 TDs), and sr. TE Garrett Hoskins (22 recs., 3 TDC). Jr. RB Javonti Greene (667 YR) and sr. Dominique Sherrer (572 YR) are a dependable veteran duo, plus soph RB Ryan Brumfield shone brightly in spring. Former Michigan RB star Mike Hart is the team’s new RB coach and helped land true frosh Juwan Lewis, one of of the better prep RBs in Michigan last year.

The team’s leading rusher in 2011 was Gillett (736 YR), a situation that coach English would like to change, both to avoid wear and tear on his starting QB and to improve the Eagle aerial game. The 6-1 Gillett completed only 55.1% of his passes last season for 1504 yards. Both figures are too low in these days of offensive pyrotechnics. Thus, insiders say Gillett has spent the offseason refining his footwork, trying to boost his accuracy, and improving rapport with receivers, with a special emphasis on finishing drives in 2012. EMU’s improved recruiting has landed a couple of talented frosh WRs--6-3 Quincy Jones & 6-2 Dustin Creel--who offer the promise of becoming impact wideouts long absent from the Eagle attack.

Jr. kicker Kody Fulkerson also must work on “finishing” after missing 3 PATs last season and connecting on only 14 of 21 FGs. Coverage teams also were vulnerable in last year, reflecting EMU’s lack of overall defensive depth. However, 5-8 soph smurf RB Tyler Allen gave indications in spring of being an electric kick returner.

Summary...Ron English is using every tool at his disposal to boost the long-moribund EMU program, which last had a winning season in 1995 and last went to a bowl in 1987. Inspirational former Wolverine RB Mike Hart should boost both recruiting and effort. Player-popular, new-look, multi-combination, lightweight uniforms from sports apparel heavyweight Adidas are in the locker room. Eagle players enjoyed a boost in self-esteem by sweeping Central Michigan and Western Michigan last season to capture the "Michigan Mac" Trophy (as highly-contrived such as it is). Said English after spring practice about the possibility of competing for the MAC West crown, “We are further along in our development overall. I think we have a chance. I think we need to get a lot better like everybody at this time of the year. I believe that if we play well, we will have a chance.” A couple of years ago that statement would have been considered to be nothing more than mandatory preseason coach-speak bloviation. While that might no longer be the case, EMU (1-5 SU away from home last season) might find its tough road schedule too much to overcome in the highly-competitive MAC West. Still, the newly-confident Eagles are flying in the right direction and will be tough to beat once again in 2012


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