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By MIKE SMITH
Eastern Michigan had been on the rise – slowly but surely - since Ron English took over in 2009. But after posting a 6-6 campaign in 2011, the Eagles hit a down-draft last year when they finished at 2-10 against the MAC’s toughest schedule (29th toughest nationally).  Plenty of challenges remain if the Green and White hope to regain some altitude -- particularly against another tough schedulle.

PictureCy Maughmer
Editors note: This is part of a series previewing Mid-American Conference football teams. All 13 teams will be previewed before they open what figures to be a very competitive season.

DEFENSE
By way of generalizations, perhaps the most pressing issues are on defense. There are five returning starters on a defense that ranked last in total defense and, also, scoring defense during MAC competition last season.

Overall, the 486.6 yards allowed per game came almost equally by air and by ground. There was a mere 76-yard difference between MAC opponent rushing and passing totals against the Eagles.

English is addressing defensive problems about as directly as one can; he is adding defensive coordinator duties to his head coaching responsibilities. He also helps coach safeties and special teams. That makes him one of eight FBS head coaches who also call plays and serve as coordinators.  

English’s focus and the development of some young players may help EMU’s bid to vacate the defensive stat basement. The Eagles played 11 “true” freshmen last year, third most in the MAC (behind Akron’s 13 and Miami’s 12) and 18th most nationally.

Among the departed defenders were two All-MAC second teamers in MLB Justin Cudworth and DL Andy Mulumbra. Three other player departures accounted for 253 tackles.

The 2013 defensive line can build around NT Cy Maughmer (12 starts last year), DE  Kalonji Kashama (11 starts and three sacks), and DT Travis Linser (9 starts, 4.5 TFL). Free safety Donald Coleman started six contests and was second on the team in tackles with 88. He registered 19 tackles against Michigan State. Corner Darius Scott logged seven starts.

Senior Sean Kurtz, a former JUCO player, figures to anchor the middle after seeing limited action last year.  He will be the center piece of a young linebacking corps.

OFFENSE
Offensively, there are reasons to believe EMU can improve upon some lackluster numbers from 2012. The Eagles were 10th in scoring (MAC) with a 21.4 ppg. average.  At No. 12, they were one spot from the bottom in total offense with a 335.4 ypg average. The 15 TDs in eight league tilts were a MAC low.

The Eagles offense, however, had its moments. There was that 624-yard outburst against Toledo, who held on to edge EMU, 52-47. It was the best offensive showing by EMU in four seasons under English and third-best in program history.

The offensive effort against UT was powered by two players who should figure heavily in Eastern’s fortunes this year.  Quarterback Tyler Benz, who moved into the lineup in game three as a redshirt sophomore, completed 18-of-27 for 301 yards and two touchdowns with one interception on the day.  Sophomore tailback Bronson Hill, meanwhile, made the most of his first EMU start. He exploded for 283 yards and four touchdowns over 28 carries. It was the second-best rushing performance in school history.

Hill followed that performance with 26 carries for 189 yards and a TD against Army the following week. The 5-10, 208-pounder, however, eclipsed 100 yards just once more (Ohio, 25/125) over the final five games and gained just 30 yards on 11 carries against MAC champ Northern Illinois in the season finale. Whether or not Hill has any “monster” games in 2013, keeping the junior productive will be an important key for EMU.

PictureTyler Benz
Benz, meanwhile, gives the Eagles an opportunity to field a balanced offense. A redshirt junior, he logged nine starts after taking over for the now-departed Alex Gillett. Overall, Benz completed 114-of-212 passes for 1,511 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions.

With the departure of second team all-MAC tight end Garrett Hoskins, senior wide receiver Donald Scott figures as a key target. He started seven games, catching 19 passes for 255 yards and three scores last year. Tight end Tyreese Russell (JR, 6-3, 242) has 22 starts to his credit. He was good for 12 catches, 196 yards and three TDs last year. Dustin Creel had six starts in 2012, pulling down 13 passes for 220 yards. Redshirt freshman Derek Owings, at 6-4, 238, is another big target.

Returning starters along the front line include guard Campbell Allison (6-6, 316, JR, 10 starts in ’12) and RT Bobby McFadden (6-7, 303, R-JR, nine starts in ’12), although Lincoln Hansen (6-6, 301, R-JR, 16 career starts) moved up the preseason depth chart at tackle. Kent Collins, 6-3, 288, JR) figures at center after the departure of Andrew Sargatz, who started 46 games during his Eagles career.

Certainly, a key weapon for EMU can be found on special teams. Dylan Mulder hit 10-of-11 field goal attempts, with three beyond 40 yards, as a freshman. He was good on 24-of-27 PATs and led the Eagles in scoring with 54 points.

On the other hand (or foot), punter Jay Karutz, a first team All-MAC selection with a hefty 42.7 ypk average, is gone. Senior Owen Dubiel figures as a replacement, while senior Kody Fulkerson backs up both Mulder and Dubiel.

OTHER:
- Former Ball State head coach Stan Parrish takes over the reigns as Eastern Michigan offensive coordinator this year. Parrish’s experience includes a stint as offensive coordinator at Michigan.

- English is in the last year of a five-year contract. He was MAC Coach of the Year in 2011 after the Eagles went 6-6 that season. EMU has not had a winning season since 1995 (6-5).

-  EMU’s schedule for 2013 includes Ohio and Bowling Green. Both are strong MAC East title contenders.

- EMU picked up two non-conference wins in 2012, besting Army (48-38) and Louisiana-Lafayette (31-10).  Non-conference opponents this year are: Howard, at Penn St., at Rutgers, at Army.

- EMU tied with Buffalo for eighth (MAC only) in turnover margin. The Eagles were minus-2 for eight conference games. Only two teams had less then EMU’s three fumbles lost. Eastern also tossed eight INTs.

- EMU was second (MAC games) in red zone offense, scoring on 17-of-19 changes with 13 TDs.

- Eastern Michigan was the only MAC team not to register double-digit sacks in MAC play. The Eagles had four sacks in eight games for 19 yards.

- Despite winning just one league game in 2012, the Eagles managed to hold on to the Michigan MAC Trophy. A 29-23 win over Western Michigan was good enough as each Michigan team went 1-1, thus allowing EMU to retain the trophy.
(Photos courtesy of Eastern Michigan Athletics)


 


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