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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Eastern Michigan Eagles

The Eagles round out our preview series.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Michigan hasn’t had a lot of things go right for them in recent memory, but there’s reason to be excited for the 2016 edition of the Eagles. A strong nucleus of solid players return and they have a chance to get Chris Creighton that elusive signature win. With that in mind, let’s get going with the preview!

Five Players to Know

QB Brogan Roback - The junior quarterback needs to take the next step in his development this season if the Eagles expect to be competitive. His 16:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2015 isn’t going to be good enough for this offense, neither will his 12 sacks or his 6.2 yards per pass attempt. Eastern Michigan will have to take more risks offensively to give Roback opportunities to be successful, or it’s going to be another long year for EMU.

RB Shaq Vann - As a freshman in 2015, Vann made the most of his touches on offense with 850 total yards (586 on the ground, 264 in the air) and six scores. With Darius Jackson graduated, he’ll be asked to carry even more of the load, and if last season is any indication, he’s more than up to the challenge.

DL Pat O’Connor - After missing all of last season due to injury, O’Connor is ready to return to his All-MAC form of 2014, when he was tops in the conference with 7.5 sacks. He’s been tabbed as a preseason All-MAC second-teamer for 2016, and the senior looks to follow through on that recognition with some other talent coming back on the defensive line.

DL Luke Maclean - Maclean also presents a match-up problem for offensive linemen at 6’5” and 261 lbs., and he used his size well a season ago as he had 10 tackles for loss as well as five sacks in his sophomore campaign. With him and O’Connor on the same defensive line in 2016, Eastern Michigan’s defense certainly has the potential to keep the Eagles in some games this season.

P Austin Barnes - Special teams is a third of the game, and EMU has a pretty good third with Barnes’ big boot. He punted 45 times for an average of 43.6 yards, and forced nine fair catches while he pinned teams inside the 20-yard line 10 times. He is an asset in field position, which is a battle Eastern Michigan has to win if it wants to be competitive in 2016.

Four Games Not to Miss

9/10 at Missouri - The Tigers are a flaming disaster on a lot of levels, and this will give the Eagles an early test to see where they’re at as a program. Don’t expect an upset, but it should be a closer game than it looks on paper.

10/15 at Ohio - This game takes on a whole different tenor without J.D. Sprague at the helm for the Bobcats. If the defensive line for the Eagles can have some success early on, the road team should be right in it until the very end.

10/29 vs. Miami - The Eagles are looking to redeem themselves after dropping a 28-13 decision to the RedHawks in Oxford last season. Miami is far from unbeatable with as many young players on the roster as they have, and playing at Rynearson could be the difference in the 2016 contest.

11/8 at Ball State - The Cardinals and Eagles tango on a Tuesday night, and you have to think the coaching staff with experience in these types of games has the edge. It’ll be interesting to see how these teams come together at end of the year, and with the players that each of these teams have, this should be a really entertaining match-up.

Three Ways the Season is a Success

Win a MAC game, any MAC game. Whether it’s fair or not, Creighton’s seat is fairly warm entering 2016 and he needs to win at least one MAC game to buy him some time to get some good recruiting classes and develop his players. There are a few winnable games on the docket this season (Ohio, Miami), so getting a MAC win is definitely attainable.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot with turnovers. You can’t expect to win when you have a -13 turnover margin, which EMU had in 2015. Having Roback in the system for another offseason will help, but ball carriers can’t lose 11 fumbles in a season. Defensively, the Eagles need to be more opportunistic in the back end as four interceptions in a season isn’t going to cut it against most of these MAC offenses.

Finish in the top half of the MAC in recruiting. You can’t expect to get wins in October and November if you don’t pick up some wins in February, something that the Creighton era hasn’t really done. The Eagles are sitting at #10 right now in the conference according to 247Sports, and they’ve only locked down six commits so far (second-fewest in the MAC) with none being three-star prospects (tied with Akron for fewest). A team is only as good as its players, and EMU would really benefit from a better effort on the recruiting trail.

Two Things to Watch For

The offensive line. For Eastern Michigan to have any success offensively, Derien Terrell and the crew up front have to give the skill players chances to make plays. After being stuffed on 29.3% of runs and giving up 24 sacks last season, look for the group to have a chip on their shoulder in 2016 and challenge some of these MAC front-sevens.

Who will replace Great Ibe? With the Eagles’ all-everything linebacker gone, EMU has some serious question marks in the middle of the defense. Kyle Rachwal showed some promise as a freshman last season with 6.5 TFLs, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. The athleticism is there for Eastern Michigan, but the inexperience can be a concern, especially in the second level of the defense.

One Bold Prediction

Roback is the top returner at QB in the MAC West in 2017. The potential is there for Roback to have a very big year in 2016: a talented RB and some pretty good WRs returning, as well as an offensive line with something to prove this season. If he can minimize the negative plays and threaten defenses more vertically, Roback can be a really dangerous player in the league.