5 questions for the Eastern Michigan football team as it heads into fall camp
Ask Ron English about last season's winless season and he insists he hasn't given it a second thought. But ask the second-year Eastern Michigan football coach what went wrong and what areas require immediate attention and English talks at length about a lack of toughness and a team that often showed up on Saturday unprepared to compete at the level it needed to.
The Eagles open camp Monday and English says his team is better. Despite not having a marquee name to anchor either the offense or the defense, English said there is more buy-in into his philosophy.
Here are five questions that need to be addressed before Eastern opens the season at home against Army on Sept. 4.
1. How does a defense that lacked toughness on a regular basis turn things around? English said last week that he should have taken over the defense rather letting it become the nation's worst defense against the run. English brought in former Detroit Lions linebackers coach Phil Snow and former Louisville defensive line coach Ken Delgado to not only teach fundamentals, but to stress attitude and toughness to a defense that lost leading tackler Andre Hatchett to graduation. English said his defensive front is not only stronger, but is more athletic, which should put his defenders in better position to finish plays.
2. Who will play quarterback? Eastern's depth chart is vastly inexperienced with Alex Gillett - a sophomore - carrying the most veteran status. Gillett started nine games as a freshman after Andy Schmitt blew out his knee against Michigan. But Gillett hasn't separated himself from redshirt freshman Devontae Payne, who threw for 1,363 yards and 15 touchdowns as a high school senior. At 6-foot-6, Payne has the better quarterback frame as opposed to the 6-1 Gillett, but Gillett is more polished. Gillett was Eastern's second-leading rusher last year, but needs work in becoming a better passer.
3. How quickly can Eastern's players put last season in the rear-view mirror? English is a strong believer in mental toughness and said a lack of that cost the Eagles some games last season. Teaching a team how to win doesn't happen overnight, but after cutting 13 players he didn't feel were willing to compete at a high level, he says he's got the building blocks. But an 0-12 season can be tough to forget. English brought in six new coaches and that should help with the fresh start Eastern Michigan's program needs.
4. How quickly can the offense come together? The Eagles averaged 16.8 points per game - 22 less than Eastern gave up on average. Getting a dedicated starter at quarterback will go along way, but senior running back Dwayne Priest has to take more of an active role in making things happen. While English feels he doesn't need a marquee superstar, Priest along with Corey Welch and the receiving corps' lone senior, Tyrone Burke, need to establish themselves as not only playmakers but as leaders given the inexperience that Gillett and Payne bring to the quarterback position.
5. When will Eastern win its first game? The non-conference slate includes Army, Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Virginia. It's not exactly a schedule that a team trying to build from scratch needs to be playing. While the focus certainly needs to be on Army, the Eagles get middle-of-the-road Miami (Ohio) in Week 2. If Eastern can't manage a split of those two games, the road gets much tougher with a stretch that includes Central Michigan, Ohio State, Ohio and Vanderbilt. The Eagles can't afford to go winless over the first six games because if that's the case, the mentality issues that troubled the Eagles last season could again come into play.
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com and can be reached at (734) 623-2554 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyparnold.