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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Key Storylines: Eastern Michigan Eagles

Eagles look to fly high without Mike Glass— and get back to their winning ways.

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

The last time we saw the Eastern Michigan Eagles, they were completing a 6-7 2019 season that saw them lose in the Quick Lane Bowl to Pitt.

The fact that a 6-7 season with another close loss could be considered disappointing in Ypsilanti tells you all that you need to know about the new heights to which Creighton has led the Eagles to. Bowl eligible in three of the last four seasons, one wonders if the COVID pandemic could stop their upward momentum.

However, the underdog mantra fits Creighton’s Eagles.

This EMU program has been built on blue-collar attitude with hard work since the arrival of Chris Creighton seven years ago, with Rynearson Stadium re-labeled “The Factory,” and the turf changed over to grey to match the floors of the automobile plants which dot southeastern Michigan.

EMU embraces that underdog role, and it’s one they’ll have to adopt in 2020 once again, as both preseason polls have the Eagles finishing fifth in the competitive West division. Don’t expect them to give up just because of what the predictions say.

A season of the unknown follows an offseason of the unknown, which, ultimately results in a lot of unknowns and uncertainty. Usually we have spring practices and games to draw assumptions of what depth charts will look like, but with most sessions (understandably) closed, and limited information coming out prior to kickoff, we’ll mostly have to go off of instinct as analysts.

I want to note the for this storylines piece, I have decided to spare everyone from picking COVID-19 as one of the seasons key storylines. I think we are all aware of what is out there, and the possibility of positive tests affecting the season. I didn’t feel the need to give you several paragraphs on that.


Preston Hutchinson’s Time

Mike Glass III is gone and with him leaves 3,597 total yards, 32 touchdowns and an all-MAC second team selection. For someone who stands just 6’ foot, Glass leaves big shoes to fill.

His replacement? Junior Preston Hutchinson, who saw action in eight games a season ago with one start.

Interestingly enough, it was Hutchinson who was on the field for the Eagles last play of 2019, as he replaced Glass for the final play of Eastern’s Quick Lane Bowl loss following Glass’ ejection.

How did Hutchinson fare in his one and only start a year ago? He was 43 of 57 for 462 yards and three touchdowns, including one for the game winning score. His efforts earned him MAC offensive player of the week honors.

It is never easy to replace a veteran signal caller, especially a high level one like Glass but the Eagles have to feel pretty good about their next man up in Hutchinson with what he has shown in limited opportunities.

With Hassan Beydoun, Thomas Odukoya, Quian Williams, and Dylan Drummond all returning, the Eagles offense will look to keep flying high with Hutchinson in what could be one of the MAC’s best passing attacks.

If Hutchinson can play at or near an all-MAC level, expect the Eagles to be a team that no one wants to play.


Replacing Shaq Vann, After All These Years

The Eagles leading rusher, the venerable Shaq Vann is gone, after six seasons and 757 yards as a senior.

Quarterback Mike Glass, the second leading rusher with 519 yards in 2019, is also gone. Willie Parker, the Eagles’ third leading rusher, opted out during the pandemic. John Brabham is no longer on the roster after transferring. Oh, and also Breck Turner, RB4, has graduated. The returning backs, sophomore Karmi Mackey and Oklahoma transfer Darius Boone, combine for just nine carries at the position.

That’s not exactly promising.

Projected starting QB Preston Hutchinson has shown an ability to run the ball in limited work and Creighton likes his mobile QB’s. Receiver Jairus Grissom is a former quarterback who has shown playmaking ability out of the wildcat to the tune of 156 yards a year ago and 20 yards in 2018, and he could perhaps step up to be more of a rushing threat in 2020.

Transfer Samson Evans, a junior from Iowa, was an all-academic selection in the Big Ten last year. He flashed on some highlight videos posted by the program and could be a sleeper for the position, if the NCAA has deemed him eligible after his transfer.

True freshman DJ Smith of Dallas, originally committed to San Jose State, was once a three-star recruit. The free year of eligibility could entice Creighton to waste little time in throwing him into the mix.

Without a spring game, it is anyone’s guess who will be in the huddle when the season opens against Kent State but if a back or committee of backs can step up to take some pressure off of Hutchinson, don’t be surprised to see the Eagles in the mix.


Head Coach Chris Creighton, Meet Offensive Coordinator Creighton

2019’s offensive coordinator Aaron Keen is gone, leaving to coach Washington University (D-III.) Keen oversaw an Eagle attack which set program records for touchdowns, touchdown passes, and pass completions in his second season.

For most schools, losing a senior quarterback and their offensive coordinator would be anxiety-inducing events. However, just as EMU appears to have a capable replacement for Glass in Hutchinson, they appear well-equipped to replace Keen.

Head coach Chris Creighton will add play calling duties to his responsibilities in 2020, hoping to call back on previous experience in the COVID-shortened season. Creighton is no stranger to offense, playing quarterback at Kenyon College, and being an offensive coordinator for five years between Concordia (D-II) and Manchester (IN) (D-III.)

Offensive line coach James Patton will be the Eagles run game coordinator in his second season in Ypsilanti, and has spent time on the staffs of Oklahoma, Northwestern, Indiana and Pitt, bringing plenty of Power Five experience to the table. Brandon Blaney, who spent last season as an analyst down Washtenaw Ave. at Michigan joins the staff. That limited staff turnover could prove vital in a short season.

Sometimes less is more, and Creighton will be banking on that as he takes over the play-calling. That said, with all the COVID related challenges, Coach Creighton may have picked the wrong season to add more responsibilities to his plate. The pressure will be on Creighton from the get-go, now that there’s no one else to blame for offensive struggles. But there’s no one better equipped at knowing what his team can do best than Creighton, so perhaps this could end up being a benefit.


D-Fence Emoji

Eastern Michigan allowed over 30 points in seven games a season ago. Unsurprisingly, six of those were losses. Offenses averaged over 400 yards per game against Eastern, and rushed for an average of over 120 yards per game.

Leading tackler Kobie Beltram is gone, Vince Calhoun graduates with his Eastern record of 49 games started, Brody Hoying’s four picks from a season ago are graduated while Kevin McGill was spending his fall in camp with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers after foregoing his senior season.

With all of these loses from a unit which struggled a season ago, it is hard to expect an improvement. However, Turan Rush and Mikey Haney return to anchor the defensive line 7 combined sacks, linebacker Terry Myrick won the offseason workout circuit after having 89 stops a year ago, and defensive backs Noski LaFluer, Blake Bogan and Freddie McGee gained valuable experience last season.

Another reason why the defense may improve? Who they won’t play. The Eagles defense won’t be seeing Jonathan Ward, Levante Bellamy, Kevin Marks, or Jarret Patterson this season, a fact which should certainly be helpful in navigating some of their defensive woes.

With all of the Eagles weapons on offense, if their defense can improve under Neal Neathery the Eagles could emerge as sleepers in a shortened MAC season.


Kelley’s Football Redemption

In September, Eastern Michigan added a transfer from the University of Texas. This particular transfer did not play for Texas. In fact, he hadn’t played foobtall since his senior year of high school in 2013.

That transfer, Greg Kelley, was wrongly convicted in 2014 for sexual abuse and his case was not overturned until 2017 when another man admitted to the crime among other flaws in the case which were highlighted by the Showtime series, “Outcry”.

Now 25 and married, Kelley will join the EMU roster as a safety. He will look to play for coach Neal Neathery, who had recruited Kelley in high school to Texas-San Antonio, where he was defensive coordinator at the time.

With players receiving a free year of eligibility, Kelley could benefit from some on-field time in the Eagle secondary. When or if he sees the field this fall, Eastern Michigan and the MAC could have a national story on their hands.

While his odds of being an impact player may be slim, he has already overcome long odds to get to this point.


Next Step

While Eagle fans will seemingly get a year-long break from the tired takes about the Rynearson Stadium attendance (which, for the record, has been solid of late when compared to their MAC peers), the program’s long, sordid history still hangs over “The Factory”.

It is well documented just how bad the EMU program was. From 1987 until 2016, Eastern Michigan did not go bowling. Before Creighton’s arrival, the high water mark for Eastern football since 2000 was a 6-6 2011 season. They did not have a single winning season in the 1990’s or the 2000’s.

Under Creighton’s watch, the Eagles have two winning seasons in the last four seasons and three bowl appearances in four years. The Eastern program is no longer recognizable to many alumni. Facilities have improved, student-athletes are graduating, players are going pro and expectations are rising.

Close losses (or moral victories, depending on how you look at it) have been the Eagles trademark, including a four point loss in the bowl game to Pitt. While a pandemic sprint of a football season may not be the best time to draw conclusions, it feels like the time is coming to find out if the Eagles can take the next step.

A MAC Championship, a divisional title, a bowl victory, or even a Michigan MAC trophy would go a long way towards turning the corner from up and comers to MAC contenders.