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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Eastern Michigan defensive secondary

The Eagles hope that health, experience and a couple of transfers lead to improvement in 2021.

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

When people see Eastern Michigan’s 2-4 record from a season ago, they might be overlooking the fact that EMU dealt with injuries in the secondary, with 10 different defense backs making starts in the 2021 season.

It can be hard to maintain a healthy defense when the chemistry of one of the most important parts of the modern college football team isn’t consistent. EMU hopes that a helath mulligan in 2021 allows them the opportunity to show that last season’s defensive woes were anomalies.

The Eagles, who often run a 4-2-5 scheme, are especially reliant upon their secondary pieces to boost their defensive prowess, using that fifth defensive back as a kind of joker linebacker. Thus, for the purposes of these previews, we’ll be referring to the pass-coverge subset of linebackers, as well as the usual corners and safeties.

The Eagle secondary is led by Senior Alvinoski LaFleur, a former JUCO recruit. Noski LaFleur earned first team all-MAC honors in 2020 after a 29 tackle campaign in six starts. He also added two picks, with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. In 2019, he had 24 tackles with a pick in 13 games, showing that LaFleur has improved exponentially since his arrival on campus. He should be one of the best defensive backs in the MAC despite being banged up this spring.

Senior Freddie McGee III also returns at corner and might be one of the more underrated defensive backs in the MAC. He had 15 tackles in four games last year after having 32 tackles in 12 games back in 2019.

Junior Blake Bogan returns, hoping for better health after injuries limited him to just two starts last season. He had just seven stops in the shortened campaign, down precipitously from the 2019 season, when he tallied 54 tackles and a pick. With a return to full health, expect Bogan to compete for all-MAC honors.

Redshirt freshman Kempton Shine, a native of Chicago, made four starts in six games last season and ended with 36 total tackles, 14 of which came against rival Central Michigan. Mark Lee Jr. also emerged last season as a redshirt freshman. The Columbus, Ohio, native appeared in six games, with two starts amid injuries at the position, and made the most of it with 21 tackles and a highlight reel-worthy 61-yard scoop and score fumble recovery.

Korey Hernandez started four games of the six games he played in last season, with 49 tackles, showing himself to be an improtant part of the secondary rotation. Russ Vaden IV started the first two games of the season before sustaining an injury, and will fight for a starting position in fall camps. Senior Jeff Hubbard, who had five starts in 2019, also returns after playing in every game a year ago with one start. Kendric Nowling earned one start in four games last fall as a redshirt sophomore.

Baltimore product Isaiah Watson played in all six games last season and emerged as one of the Eagles best special team contributors. Grand Blanc’s Myles McNeal is a developing player with high upside who saw time in all six games as a true freshman. Indianapolis product EJ Williams and River Rogue’s David Carter Jr., are depth options to look out for coming out of camps as well.

While the Eagles return all of their starters, they do lose some depth to the transfer portal. Corner Timarcus Simpson transferred to South Florida, while fellow corner Carthell Flowers wound up at FCS Stony Brook. Safety Jerrod Vines remained in the portal as of press time, after collecting three starts last year. Greg Kelley, who joined the team last fall at age 25 following his being exonerated from a sexual assault conviction, retired this past spring.

Their departures are met with the addition of two potentially high-level transfers.

Incoming Rutgers transfer Jarrett Paul has the resume of an impact player. Paul, a junior from the famed Paramus Catholic high school, had 45 tackles in 23 career games for the Scarlet Knights. In 2019, he had eight starts at free safety with 44 tackles, including eight tackles at Michigan. While a free safety at Rutgers, he could fill more of a field corner role in Ypsilanti.

Bucknell transfer Brandon Benson was a former team captain and an All-Patriot league first team selection. He led the Bison with 23 tackles in four games and in the last full season, he had 68 tackles in ten starts. He adds experience after playing in 32 career games at Bucknell, and will have one season of eligibility.

A handful of transfers who were on the roster last season include former Arizona State corner Thomas Shorack, who did not see action with Eastern last season, Air Force transer TJ Peavey, a walk-on who played in five games last fall, and Trinity (NAIA) back Jalen Weathers, who didn’t see time last fall but should challenge this season.

Coaches for the position group include defensive coordinator Neal Neathery, Corners coach LaMarcus Hicks, and defensive passing game coordinator Fred Reed, who also coaches the safeties.

Sometimes when you have a lot of injuries in one season, it can be a blessing the next season as it means that a lot of players gained valuable experience the season before and that might just be true in Ypsilanti as the Eagles may have started ten different backs last fall but nine of those now return this season to give the Eagles one of the more experienced MAC secondaries. Coming off of a season with limited practice and game reps, this could be huge for the Eagles development.

Eastern has a tradition of good secondary players in recentl years, including Vince Calhoun, Kevin McGill, Brody Hoying, and this yea’rs group, could play up to those aspirations if given a full season. That said, the Eagle defense undeniably struggled in 2020, and will need to take the next step forward if Eastern Michigan looks to surprise in the MAC in 2021.

Expect a healthier, more seasoned Eagle secondary to push for improvement in Ypsilanti, while giving the Eagles a defense which should be closer to its 2019 output, which was one of the better pass defenses in the conference, than what they put on the field last season.