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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Eastern Michigan Eagles

Is this a rebuilding or reloading season in Ypsilanti?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 26 Quick Lane Bowl - Pitt v Eastern Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A season ago, the Eagles finished the regular season at 6-6, giving them back-to-back bowl seasons, and their third bowl appearance in four years.

Along the way, the Eagles upset a bowl-bound Illinois, had a walk-off victory against Central Connecticut State and beat rival Western Michigan at home, before ultimatlely ending the season in a heartbreaking defeat up the road from Ypsilanti to the Pitt Panthers in the Quick Lane Bowl. They finished the season at 6-7.

Following the season, offensive coordinator Aaron Keen left to take the head coaching job at Washington University (D-II). His replacement is no outsider, as head coach Chris Creighton takes on the play calling duties himself.

Key Returnees:

  • WR Hassan Beydoun
  • WR Quian Williams
  • Slash (QB/WR) Jairus Grissom
  • WR Dylan Drummond
  • TE Thomas Odukoya
  • OL Mike Van Hoeven
  • OL Jake Donnellon
  • OL Sidy Sow
  • DE Mikey Haney
  • LB Terry Myrick
  • CB Freddie McGee
  • K Chad Ryland
  • P Jake Julien

Key departures:

  • Offensive coordinator Aaron Keen
  • CB Kevin McGill
  • RT Steve Nielsen
  • G Sam Dervil
  • QB Mike Glass
  • HB Shaq Vann
  • HB Willie Parker
  • S Vince Calhoun
  • S/LB Brody Hoying
  • LB Kobie Beltram
  • WR Line Latu
  • WR Arthur Jackson
  • WR Matt Sexton

With the graduation of Mike Glass (second-team all-MAC), the Eagles will have a new signal caller in 2020. Preston Hutchinson steps into the spotlight under center, but it’s not a total unfamiliar role for the junior. Hutchinson led EMU to a victory over rival Western Michigan, completing 31-of-36 passes for 357 yards and four total touchdowns. Altogether he played in eight games on the season, including the final snap of the season in Eastern’s Quick Lane Bowl defeat against Pitt. Transfer Chris Helbig is no longer on the roster, so the expected backup becomes sophomore Aaron Jackson or senior Isaac Stiebeling. Jairus Grissom, who started his EMU career at quarterback, but is now listed as a receiver. Look for him to return to role of playmaker and wildcat quarterback option for the Eagles.

At running back, the venerable Shaq Vann has graduated and Willie Parker has opted out from the 2020 season. The Eagles running attack a year ago relied heavily on the mobile Glass, and Grissom after Vann in the 2019 campaign, so this situation could be a bit uncertain to start the 2020 season.

Expect the Eagles to look towards a committee led by sophomore Karmi Mackey, who appeared in seven games a year ago. Redshirt freshman Darius Boone was a highly regarded recruit out of Oklahoma a year ago, and appeared in two games. Former San Jose State commit DJ Smith is another highly regarded back who should compete for time as well. Junior transfer Samson Evans enters the program from Iowa and has generated some buzz from his work during fall camp. The last transfer from Iowa worked out pretty well for the Eagles, as QB Tyler Wiegers help lead EMU to the Camelia Bowl in 2018.

Arthur Jackson (592 receiving yards) leaves after being a second-team all-MAC selection a year ago, as does Matthew Sexton and Line Latu. The Eagles should be in good hands though, as several contributors to last season’s success will return for 2020. Dylan Drummond was third-team all-MAC a year ago with 55 receptions. Quian Williams also returns with his 661 receiving yards from a year ago. Former walk-on Hassan Beydoun features great speed and is likely to fill Latu’s shoes in the slot. Grissom is another year into his transition to receiver and could be Eastern’s biggest playmaking threat.

The Eagles feature experience at tight end. Thomas Odukoya, who stands at six-foot-six, was selected as a team captain and made an appearance on the Mackey Award watch list, which is given to the best tight end in college football. Bryson Cannon saw action in all 13 games a year ago as well, with eight starts, recording two touchdowns. Junior Gunnar Oakes will provide even more depth for the Eagles.

The Eagles offensive line must replace fiery guard Sam Devil and tackle Steve Nielsen, who signed an undrafted contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, it is another unit not lacking for experience as projected starters Mike Van Hoeven and Jake Donnellon are seniors, while junior tackle Sidy Sow has two years of starting experience. Brian Dooley is another returning starter after starting all 13 games a year ago. Michigan State transfer Dimitri Douglas returns to Washtenaw County after prepping at Saline High School and should challenge for a spot in the starting five.

Defensively, the Eagles will have some work to do, as they look to improve upon a unit which only registered 22 sacks a season ago while allowing seven opponents to score over 30 points.

Up front, sophomore Mikey Haney returns with his 43 tackles and two sacks, while Turran Rush brings further experience with his 22 tackles and one sack. The big senior Woo Scott should anchor the middle of the defensive line one again, while Jose Ramirez, Clay Holford, Alex Merritt, and Michael Smith all return to compete for rotational opportunities.

Senior linebacker Terry Myrick had a strong offseason of work following a year where he started 13 games with 89 stops. Junior Tariq Speights should see an increased role following the departures of Brody Hoying (second-team all-MAC) and Kobie Beltram (third-team all-MAC). Noski LaFleur is similar to Hoying with his hybrid type style and was around the football a lot a season ago.

The Eagles will look to replace second-team all-MAC selection Kevin McGill, who signed with the San Diego Chargers and Vince Calhoun, who started 49 games across four seasons in Ypsilanti.

Senior Freddie McGee becomes the elder statesmen on the back end of the Green and White defense, after starting five games a season ago. Don’t be surprised if he sneaks on to some all-MAC lists. Junior Blake Bogan made 11 starts a year ago and returns while Jeff Hubbard returns with five starts. Jerrod Vines, was second on the team with five pass breakups. Mark Lee and Kempton Shine are among redshirt freshmen vying for time, as is transfer Greg Kelley, who is finally getting the chance to play college football after being wrongfully incarcerated out of high school. Kelley was previously recruited to UTSA when current EMU coordinator Neal Neathery served the same role for the Roadrunners.

Kicker Chad Ryland is now on scholarship and has kicked some of the biggest kicks in Eagles history including winners against Big Ten foes Illinois and Purdue. Senior punter Jake Julien is on the Ray Guy watchlist and had one of the best seasons in EMU history with 43.8 average on the season. Long snapper Steven Bird is one of the MAC’s most interesting characters and can likely be found holding the wrench when he’s not handling the ball on-field. It’s one of the MAC’s most experienced specialists units, and also a unit which has achieved a great deal of success in recent years. They should be dangerous once again this season.

With some of the Eagles graduations, some had expected this year to be a rebuilding year in Ypsilanti long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The MAC schedule makers did Eastern no favors as they open at Kent State, a team which won the Frisco Bowl a year ago. Of Eastern’s other opponents, Central Michigan played in the New Mexico Bowl after winning the MAC west and drubbing EMU 42-16. Western Michigan won seven games and loss the First Responders Bowl. Toledo was bowl-eligible but did not go bowling despite beating Eastern during a monsoon in Toledo. Ball State and NIU should be improved as well, which lends a bit of uncertainty for the Eagles going forward.

The pandemic hit the Eagles at the wrong time (as if there is a right time). Eastern has reached new heights under Coach Creighton, and the perception around the program has changed. With that change in perception, so too have the expectations around the program changed—an indication both of the success the team has achieved in getting out of the bottom of the heap, and the current frustration in trying to climb the hill to sustained success. The close losses, previously seen as moral victories or the sign of a team that was trying to win, are no longer cute, and making a bowl game is no longer an unexpected surprise, but rather, a default expectation.

What the pandemic does to the momentum surrounding Creighton’s program remains to be seen, especially with Creighton taking over offensive playcalling duties. While some may call this a rebuilding year, rebuilding no longer means the decades-long process which some Ypsi locals had become used to.

If Preston Hutchinson can be quarterback we saw a season ago against WMU, and they can find a solid running game while minimizing their loses on defense, expect the Eagles to emerge as a sleeper in the MAC. However, keep in mind that this is a young team which should benefit from a free year of eligibility to gain experience and reload if the season doesn’t go to expectation.