Ron English pleased with Eastern Michigan football team's progress this spring
While big-name schools like Alabama and Ohio State are attracting thousands of eager fans and the attention of national media outlets for their spring games, the Eastern Michigan football program's crowd is more modest.
About 300 people watched the Eagles put finishing touches on a productive spring Sunday afternoon. It didn’t have the glitz of the higher-profile spring games. But none of that matters to Eastern coach Ron English.
In English's first year on the job, the Eagles finished 0-12, and the defensive-minded coach knew what needed to be changed. The Eastern Michigan defense administered several ooo-and-ahh-inducing hits throughout the scrimmage, which was full contact, except for the quarterbacks.
“They’re really starting to believe what I believe, playing a full six seconds, until the whistle and playing really physical football,” English said. “I’m really impressed by the progress we’ve made during the spring.”
Defensive lineman Brandon Slater has bought into English’s mantra.
Sporting a big smile when asked about the defensive aggressiveness, Slater said that before the spring practices, English, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan, showed the Eagles highlight tapes of his maize-and-blue squads.
English wanted to show Eastern Michigan what a defense that “bought in” could look like — that 2006 Wolverines squad was 10th in the nation in total defense.
“Oh, I love it,” Slater said. “We’re running to the ball better, we’re tackling better and striking better. We’re communicating better. We’re just improving all over the board.”
There was plenty to be optimistic about on the other side of the ball, as well. A year after getting thrust in the starting lineup after senior Andy Schmitt went down with an injury, quarterback Alex Gillettt is hitting his stride in the pocket.
He looked a little shaky early, throwing a few passes wide or too high for his receivers, but the sophomore settled down as the scrimmage wore on.
“I just wanted to focus on overall improvement this spring, making myself a better quarterback,” Gillett said. “I was really raw last year, but I’m getting more comfortable.”
Gillett's top — and only — competition for the starting job is redshirt freshman Devontae Payne, a more traditional pocket passer. At 6-foot-6, Payne towers over Gillett.
English didn’t talk about any potential depth charts, but it’s possible that both quarterbacks will see significant playing time. That’s good news for the Eagles, since Gillett and Payne are the only two quarterbacks on the roster.
“They’re young, really green,” English said. “But I love coaching them. They’re both really good guys, and they’re both committed to helping this team.”
Andy Reid covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.