Eastern Michigan played in a bowl game last season for the first time in nearly three decades, the clearest sign yet that head coach Chris Creighton has this program going in the right direction. But can the Eagles take the next step this fall? Creighton has 16 starters returning, including one of the MAC’s best quarterbacks but there are questions along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. If the Eagles wind up back in the postseason they will have earned it by navigating one of the tougher schedules in the MAC.
Previewing Eastern Michigan Football’s Offense for 2017
Brogan Roback, a former four-star recruit, has appeared in 34 games (23 starts) during his career. He took his game to another level in 2016, throwing for 2,694 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 games after being suspended to begin the season. True freshman Jairus Grissom appears to be the QB of the future, and Todd Porter provides an experienced backup, but this is Roback’s offense to guide for one more year.
The return from injury of Shaq Vann (121 carries, 752 yards in his career) to lead the rushing attack will be a huge boost to a position group that managed quite well without him last year thanks to the emergence of Ian Eriksen (771 yards) and Breck Turner (417), both of whom will be back in the fold. The depth at the position will be invaluable.
Dieuly Aristilde came out of nowhere to emerge as Roback’s go-to threat the second half of 2016. After catching only one pass for 20 yards in the first eight games, he had 24 receptions for 472 yards in the last five games. Aristilde, still just a sophomore, will team with several proven veterans to form a solid receiving corps.
The biggest question mark for the Eagles offense is on the line, where three full-time starters graduated and some restructuring must be done. Look for junior guard Jimmy Leatiota, a returning starter, to lead this group, but he will need some help.
Previewing Eastern Michigan Football’s Defense for 2017
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Eastern Michigan was not abysmal on defense in 2016, a huge step in the right direction after so many years of being gashed play after play. The biggest progress was made in preventing big plays in the run game. In 2015, the Eagles allowed 120 rushing plays of 10-plus yards, by far the most in the nation; last year, they led the MAC in the category, allowing only 49. EMU was sixth in the league in scoring defense (29.8 ppg) and seventh in total defense (432.7 ypg), areas that could see improvement this fall.
At safety, Anthony Brown is back after missing last year with an injury. His presence gives EMU plenty of versatility in the secondary as he joins Jason Beck and Vince Calhoun as disruptive playmakers. Former three-star recruit Shaq Jones transfers in from junior college and will have an opportunity to start at cornerback.
Kyle Rachwal led the team with 109 tackles last year as one of two starting linebackers in defensive coordinator Neal Nethery’s 4-2-5 scheme. Ike Spearman and Jaylen Pickett are solid options opposite Rachwal.
Finding a pass rusher to replace the graduated Pat O’Connor (8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss) will be a challenge. Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby will be counted on to produce.
Previewing Eastern Michigan Football’s Specialists for 2017
There were no issues last year with either placekicker Paul Fricano (19-of-24 on field goals) or punter Austin Barnes (43.5-yard average). Fricano returns as an All-MAC candidate at kicker, but Barnes decided to leave the team after spring practice. Blake Banham had some success in both facets of the return game and is expected to reprise that role.
Eastern Michigan played in its first bowl game in 29 years last year, a major step forward for a program known mostly for its futility. Was it a one-year mirage or a sign of what is to come? Coach Chris Creighton has revamped the entire image of the program, and he heads into his fourth year hoping to turn the Eagles into a MAC West contender. The returning pieces are talented enough for it to be a possibility — though the West is by far the tougher of the MAC’s two divisions. The feeling around Eagles camp is that they will go as far as their revamped offensive line can take them.
National Ranking: 102
MAC West Prediction: 4
(Brogan Roback photo courtesy of Steve King/EMUEaglesPhoto.com)