Photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Eastern Michigan gave its fans a reason to be optimistic last year by finishing 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference with a young offensive unit.
Coach Ron English guided his team to back-to-back victories over FCS opponents Howard (41-9) and Alabama State (14-7). EMU then dropped back down to .500 after unsuccessful visits to Michigan (31-3) and Penn State (34-6). The Eagles flew past Akron (31-24) in their MAC opener, but were unsuccessful their next time out as the Toledo Rockets (54-16) dismantled them. EMU bounced back with two straight wins over Central Michigan (35-28) and Western Michigan (14-10), but it lost three of its last four games to close out the year.
The Eagles did not qualify for bowl game consideration with six wins because two of their victories came over FCS opponents.
OFFENSE: English challenged Alex Gillett this spring by declaring the quarterback position open. The three-year starter got the message and improved his footwork and passing accuracy enough to impress his coach. Gillett's ability to scramble helped him dash for a team-best 736 yards last year.
EMU had the 14th best rushing attack in the nation in 2011. The offensive line that did the work in the trenches to give the Eagles such a successful running game returns all five starters. To further enhance the offense, six of the team's top seven rushers are back as well.
The success in the running game desperately needs to be balanced out by a more efficient passing attack. Gillett has a pair of adequate targets in Nick Olds and Demarius Reed to help make that possible. Tight end Garrett Hoskins is also a valuable asset. Hoskins was second on the team with 328 receiving yards last season.
DEFENSE: EMU had one of the better defenses in the MAC last season, allowing just 350.3 yards per game. The Eagles lose key players from 2011's successful unit though. The defensive line and secondary are both areas of concern.
Defensive end Andy Malumba is the only returning player from the front four. The linebacking corps is led by leading returning tackler Justin Cudworth. Bryan Pali and Colin Weingrad will both play significant roles alongside the leader.
"I embrace the (leader) role in every drill, every film session, every practice, and every game." said Cudworth. "I conduct myself as best I can and not only lead by example but also talk to the younger guys and show them things here and there."
The Eagles have a pair of talented cornerbacks in Marlon Pollard (54 tackles, one INT) and Marcell Rose (56 tackles, one INT). Sean Cotton and Kevin Johnson, the projected starting safeties, are both sophomores with a long way to go.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Eagles return both their kicker Kody Fulkerson and punter Jay Karutz from last season. Fulkerson struggles with accuracy on longer tries and made 14-of-21 field goal attempts last season. Karutz did not have a punt blocked all of last season and averaged 38.8 yards per punt. Tyler Allen impressed the coaching staff in the spring with his electrifying speed, enough so to be made the team's return man.
OUTLOOK: EMU will need Gillett and the offense to carry the burden for the early part of the season as the seven new defensive starters get their feet wet. The Eagles will need to improve their ability to hang on to the ball for that to be possible, as they were 91st in the NCAA in turnover margin per game (-0.42) last season.
"Every year is different. I don't know what kind of team we have," said English. "I know we have some talented players but I don't know until they are challenged if they are tough people. But we'll find out."
English's team will not have an easy road to start its quest for the school's first bowl bid since 1987. EMU begins its 2012 season with a bout with MAC rival Ball State on the road. The Eagles then have their home opener versus Illinois State before back-to-back road games versus Purdue and Michigan State. The team will then have 5 of its last 8 games at Rynearson Stadium. The Eagles will host Army to end their non-conference slate and have the luxury of facing Toledo and Northern Illinois at home.
The Eagles are a very tough team to predict this season. Their defense is a question mark with all of the departures. The non-conference action for the inexperienced players on the defense will be vital as they need to be on the field for as many snaps as possible before EMU enters the heart of its MAC schedule.