With new attitude, new system in place, Eastern Michigan looking for new results
With a new attitude came a change in expectations.
But with a fresh approach to football in place at a school where the same stagnant results have kept Eastern Michigan mired amongst the Mid-American Conference's bottom-dwellers, the Eagles will depend on old faces to create a new reality.
Ask Andy Schmitt about the four games last season when the Eagles' offense managed less than 14 points and the senior quarterback nods his head in disgust, forced again to drudge up the past.
Bring the same four losses up to senior running back Terrence Blevins and he grits his teeth, slow to talk about offensive letdowns he feels partially responsible for.
But inquire about the potential that embodies Eastern Michigan's new pro-style brand of offense and the optimism that came with the hiring of first-year coach Ron English becomes evident.
And once again, hope returns to a program that hasn't posted a winning record since 1995.
Gone is a spread offense that produced more than 35 points a game during its infancy in Ypsilanti. In its place is a system that Eastern Michigan's players believe better suits the Eagles' collective skill set and that could make last year's offensive failings a thing of the past.
"We didn't bring it all the time," Schmitt says, recalling a 3-9 season in which the Eagles averaged 20.1 points per game before scoring 108 points in their final two games against Temple and Central Michigan. "We weren't very consistent last year, and that's the thing we're working on now."
The Eagles surpassed the 50-point plateau three times last year, which led to two of their three wins. But three times, the Eagles failed to manage 13 points, including an embarrassing 37-0 home loss to Northern Illinois when Eastern averaged 3.6 yards per play from scrimmage.
The pro-style option implemented this spring by English and offensive coordinator Ken Karcher is supposed to provide more consistency. Despite some early struggles to grasp a change of attack in the spring, English believes an offense that includes eight senior starters can turn things around.
Success will be anchored around an experienced offensive line that has to create space for the run game. If the Eagles can get its stable of running backs going, the system allows for an open style of play that could keep Eastern Michigan in more games.
English, who held defensive coordinator positions at Michigan and Louisville before coming to Eastern, believes when executed, the pro-style system can be tough to defend.
English's players have to hold up their end of the bargain if the new-look offense is going to work. Last season, Eastern demonstrated the ability to move the ball, but was often cursed by penalties and turnovers inside the red zone that kept the Eagles from producing enough to win.
"In any system, we have to pay better attention to detail," English said. "The teams that play with great detail and great passion and toughness are the teams that win.
"We have to do what we believe in (offensively) and what think is best for us. As we continue to do that, we'll recruit to that system and put the players in the best position to be success."
And even before they have put the new system into game action against Army, Eastern Michigan's skill players feel better suited to succeed. For Blevins -Â who led the Eagles in rushing with 575 yards and 12 touchdowns - establishing consistency is the first step.
Once Eastern finds a comfort level with a pro-style set, Blevins believes the rest can fall into place. And if need be, he'll remember last year when the Eagles saw first-hand what can happen when things break down.
"You learn through the rough times, and you learn how to be consistent," Blevins said. "You learn from your mistakes, but Coach (English) is teaching us how to finish and how to consistently get better every day.
"I think we're going to be OK."
The Eagles have started recent seasons with similar sentiments. After winning just 12 games over the last four years, early optimism has translated to overall disappointment.
Now with a new system and coaching philosophy in place, the Eagles' veteran playmakers hope this is the season that things finally begin to change.
And perhaps more than ever, it's the Eagles' offensive skill players who operate with optimism, believing the new look can deliver.
"We have been losing in the past, and we need to try something new," Schmitt said. "There's a lot of stuff we can do with this offense that's exciting."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or firstname.lastname@example.org