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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Eastern Michigan skill positions

Eastern looks to pick up where they left off in the final two games of 2020.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 NIU at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Head coach Chris Creighton, who doubles as Eastern Michigan’s offensive coordinator starting this season, took a new approach entering this past off-season.

Creighton jumped into the transfer portal adding some talented, experienced options to an already experienced group of Eagle skill position players. The EMU offense finished strong last year, dropping 53 points on Western Michigan and 41 points on NIU in their final two games of the season.

The EMU offense is led by returning starter Preston Hutchinson, who made a strong case to make one of the all-conference team’s last season. His successes a year ago were not surprising, as he had previously led Eastern to a 2019 upset victory against rival Western Michigan in his first career start.

The Junior is entering his second full season as a starter after starting all six games in 2020.

He threw for 1,662 yards a season ago with 12 touchdowns to six picks and aided the EMU ground attack with eight rushing touchdowns. The solid marks likely would have challenged for room in the EMU record books over a full 12 game season.

Hutchinson is likely to be backed up by grad transfer Ben Bryant from Cincinnati. Bryant, a senior, played in eight games a year ago at Cincinnati, backing up Desmond Ridder for a team that reached the Sugar Bowl. In the 2019 season finale, Bryant went 20-32 for 229 yards and a touchdown in a start against Memphis.

Bryant flashed in the spring game, and could challenge for time. He looks the part of an Eastern QB with his quick feet, which are reminiscent of several former signalcallers in recent years. Bryant showed such speed in 2020, scoring on a 40-yard QB draw against Austin Peay last season.

Coach Chris Creighton has not been afraid to roll with two quarterbacks before with previously rotating Reggie Bell with Brogan Roback and Tyler Wiegers with Mike Glass. Wiegers himself was a grad transfer from Iowa.

Walk-on Christopher Kaminski, true freshman Austin Smith of Georgia, and 2020 recruit Baron May also appear on the QB depth chart.

Of note, offensive weapon Jairus Grissom left the program and has since transferred to Tyrone Wheatley’s Morgan State Bears. Grissom, a prolific playmaker, was often used as the Eagles wildcat package QB. Grissom had just five carries for 16 yards last season, but had 20 carries for 156 yards back in 2019.

At receiver, the Eagles feature depth despite the loss of Quian Williams to transfer. Williams flipped sides in the Ontario Sandwich Rivalry, transferring intra-conference to Buffalo after a 24-reception campaign a year ago, and 52 receptions for 661 yards with six touchdowns in 2019.

The speedy Hassan Beydoun has been a remarkable story as a former walk-on who had to ask his way into a tryout opportunity. A third-team all-MAC selection last season, he was nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy given to college football’s best walk-on.

He caught at least seven balls in all five appearances a year ago, setting an EMU program record with an average of eight catches per game, topping over 100 yards in three of the five games he was in. His numbers would have compared favorably nationally with more games played, but Beydoun ended his campaign with 40 catches for 508 yards— while somehow not compiling a touchdown in the 2020 campaign.

Another former walk-on, Tanner Knue, exploded onto the scene last season, becoming the Eagles’ top receiving threat in scoring situations, with 27 receptions for 413 yards and a team-high four touchdowns.

Dylan Drummond, who earned third-team all-MAC honors with 493 yards on 55 catches in 2019, was banged up in 2020, struggling to appear in three games with one start, totalling only six receptions. With a clean bill of health, it can be expected that Drummond will bounce back.

A couple of Power Five transfers should add depth. Dennis Smith joins the Eagles with solid size at six-foot-one from Duke University. While at Duke, he appeared in six games and was previously a three-star recruit. Another Junior I’Shawn Stewart transfers in from Oregon State, where he appeared in two career games. A third transfer, Dylan Summers from Cornell also transferred in.

Another sleeper to keep an eye on is transfer Zach Westmoreland, a standout in high school from Missouri who struggled with injury and a season canceled by COVID at Northeast Oklahoma A&M.

Second year freshman Xavier Smith could also appear on the two deep depth chart.

All that said, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room. A year ago, the Eagle rushing attack was among the worst in Division I, and was the worst in the Mid-American Conference by many measures, averaging 124 rushing yards per game. The Eagles enter the season with quantity at the position, and even understanding the injury and graduation woes the Eagles faced in 2020, there will need to be more quality from their committee of backs if the team hopes to compete in 2021.

Redshirt freshman Darius Boone looks to be the first man up after starting three games a season ago around injuries. The Oklahoma native averaged 84.7 yards per game and had 254 on 44 carries with two touchdowns a year ago. His pinnacle moment came on the road against rival Western Michigan when he ran for 148 yards over the Bronco defense.

Iowa transfer Samson Evans also saw time in five games for the Eagles a year ago and finished with 202 yards on 41 carries. He also showed soft hands catching six passes for 46 yards. His brother Carter, a freshman on the defensive line, will also be joining the squad.

While Karmi Mackey transfers out, Jawon Hamilton transfers in. The speedy Hamilton shouldn’t be rusty, as he just played in eight games this spring for James Madison. In the FCS playoffs, he broke a 99-yard touchdown run against VMI. The venerable Hamilton started his career back in 2016 at UCF, as part of their undefeated 2017 Peach Bowl team. Don’t be surprised if Hamilton emerges as the Eagles return man to start, with some carries mixed in as he becomes more familiar with the offense.

The speedy Trey Bess at times looked like Eastern’s Bess-t back (see what I did there?) The Georgia native played in four games but had 102 yards on 16 carries, good for a 6.4 average per carry. Bess should be in the mix to compete for a rotational role, as Evans and Boone will likely fight for the every down positions.

DJ Smith appeared in four games last season as a true freshman. The one-time San Jose State commitment ran 18 times for 18 yards.

Walk-on Josh McCarty is another back who could challenge for time after flashing in practices. Sebastian Toland joins the program as a transfer from Division II Northern Michigan, where he had 91 carries in 2019 for 268 yards in 10 games.

Thankfully for EMU, they’ll have some help on the outside of the line, as EMU’s tight ends group are some of the more reliable ones in the MAC.

Captain Thomas Odukoya, a native of the Netherlands, returns and should be one of the most complete tight ends in the conference. Odukoya caught five passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns last year, and proved a decent blocker when necessary, but a lot of his impact comes outside the box score in the form of blocking and leadership.

Odukoya was selected by his teammates to wear EMU’s honorific #2 for the upcoming season, which is given out in memory of former Eagle receiver Demarius Reed, who was slain while in school.

Bryson Cannon, a senior, also returns. The South Carolina native had nine catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns a year ago while leading the team with a 19.78 yards per catch average. He has ten starts across two years in Ypsilanti.

Interestingly, Odukoya was named preseason first team all-MAC by Phil Steele while Bryson Cannon was named second team all-MAC by Athlon Sports for 2021.

Converted quarterback Aaron Jackson appeared in four games with three receptions for 23 yards, while Gunnar Oakes is a junior who adds experience. Former JUCO transfer Zach Hartsfield is also a depth chart candidate after former tight end Lucas Luft departed for Florida Atlantic in the offseason.

Positional coaches include Mike Piatkowski for quarterbacks, Sam Sewell for running backs, RJ Fleming for receivers, and Brandon Blaney for tight ends. Fleming comes from Liberty, where he coached Antonio Gandy-Golden, an NFL draft choice. Former EMU running back Shaq Vann is back as an offensive graduate assistant.

The Eagles have enough depth behind an experienced offensive line to withstand the grind of the conference schedule, and will hope to exceed expectations within the conference after a struggle of a season in 2020.