After the emotional roller coaster the Eastern Michigan University football team rode last year – the death of receiver Demarius Reed, the firing of former coach Ron English and the usual attendance woes – it appears as if first-year coach Chris Creighton has made strides toward improving the atmosphere in the locker room.
Senior offensive tackle Lincoln Hansen, a captain on offense, said things have changed from his prospective since Creighton was hired.
“Things have been awesome,” he said. “It’s been a great, I think it’s been 8 1/2 months now since that’s happened. Things have changed – just look at the stadium – obviously you can see changes. You can see changes in the guys, we act as a family now, compared to the way we were before. It’s just night and day. It feels like a different place.”
One of the newest Eagles, redshirt senior quarterback Rob Bolden said team chemistry is definitely high.
“It’s great,” he said. “Coach Creighton preaches the family thing and I think he’s done a great job building it. With a new staff it’s always tricky to get guys to buy in and get on the same page, and the approach he’s taken – he’s well on his way.”
Junior defensive lineman and co-defensive captain Pat O’Connor agreed with Hansen regarding the change in the locker room.
“I’d say it’s changed a lot [since last year],” he said. “We have leaders who are stepping up – I know Pudge [Cotton] is a captain too, he’s stepping up, we’re talking. When we make plays, we’re excited – we’re all excited. It’s half way through camp, everyone’s energetic and we’re just having fun.”
He added: “It’s a lot different [since last year]. We get along a lot. We’re all great friends – on and off the field.”
Junior wide receiver Dustin Creel said the family atmosphere is present more now than it was last year.
“I think we’re more of a family,” he said. “The bond is a lot stronger, everyone’s more bought in – everyone’s more committed to doing right. Ultimately, it’s a lot better.”
Last season, the defense was arguably the weakest link for the Eagles. The team gave up an average of just over 45 points, 258 yards on the ground and 252 yards in the air last season. Opponents also scored 66 touchdowns (43 passing, 23 rushing) against EMU.
O’Connor had a simple answer for that.
“Last year, we didn’t come to play,” he said. “This year, we’re going to put that in the past and we’re going to bring this whole new defense out … we’re going to work hard, play hard … we’re going to make plays.”
He added: “We’re just going to put the team on our back, uphold our defensive standpoint, we’re going to hold down offenses and put our offense and defense in a place to score and win us ballgames.”
Sophomore quarterback Brogan Roback, who has seen the defense in camp this year, said they’ve made improvements.
“I think they’ve made a huge jump, honestly,” he said. “They compete, they bring it every day, they bring the juice. They’re making us [improve] our play. I know the [defensive] line is getting after it, and they’re making the [offensive] line better. And that’s what we need, that’s exactly what we need.”
Hansen, who lines up opposite the Eagles’ defensive line each practice, says they’re getting better, too.
“The [defensive] line is looking really stout right now,” he said. “They’re giving us challenges every day.”
Improving every day
After finishing near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference in 2013 with a 2-10 record, the Eagles seem to be making strides in the right direction this summer.
Creighton and his team are halfway through their preseason camp and he said he is impressed by what he’s seen so far.
“It’s [camp] gone well,” he said. “We’ve had 14 opportunities. I think we’ve gotten better in some way at every practice, which is good.”
He said, despite the team’s progress, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
Creighton described the team’s progress by position groups, instead of naming players who stood out to him.
“I felt as though our offensive line had the opportunity to be the back bone of our team,” he said. “I think those guys really have a chance. I think in our running game and the pass was real strong, and I think that’s got the chance to be strong again.”
He added: “Talking to our guys, I think they feel really good about how we’re playing defensively. We’ve created 33 turnovers in the 14 practices – which every time those happen it’s a good thing and a bad thing – you know, because we’re wearing green and white. [There’s] a little bit more of an emphasis on trying to stop the run. I think our defense is improving, our special teams are in great hands – I think guys are, for the most part, understanding how critical they are and so you can always get better, but there’s some pretty good attention to special teams.”
The quarterback position looked to be very uncertain going into Creighton’s tenure, and even more so when Rob Bolden transferred to Eastern from Louisiana State University in July. Roback – the incumbent starter – now appears to be in a competition with Bolden and redshirt freshman Reggie Bell for the starting nod.
In 9 games last season, Roback completed 49-of-116 passes for 640 yards, 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
Bell redshirted last year and Bolden hasn’t seen a snap under center since 2011, when he played for Penn State University.
According to sports-reference.com, Bolden completed 53-of-135 passes that season, for 685 yards, 2 TD and 7 INT.
“Yeah, [the quarterback competition is] good,” Creighton said. “With Rob [Bolden] coming [from LSU], Brandon Bossard has been able to move to safety, which I think is really good for him and for our team. Lemar Harris is giving wide receiver a shot, so we have the three [Bolden, Roback and Bell]. It’s very competitive, it’s made that group better – no question about it. We’re pleased with the way that’s moving.”
Bolden said his experience at LSU, and Penn State before that, gives him a chance to really help the Eagles.
“I changed positions – I did the whole wide receiver thing for a semester, in the spring [at LSU] and I think that helped me tremendously just to get an understanding for what it is they’re talking about,” he said. “You can tell me all day, but until you’re in that position for yourself you get a real understanding for it. I think that aspect and my abnormal career as far as going to different schools and everything, and just that experience I’ve had is great.”
Roback said his experience as the starter down the stretch last year is helping him in camp.
“[I have] experience, I’d say that’s the main thing,” he said. “I think that’s huge. Also confidence, but confidence comes from preparation. That’s the main thing, just being out there with the team.”
He also said he feels good about the competition to start and Bolden’s transfer.
“Yeah, you know, that’s fine,” he said. “We know we needed another quarterback, we were really short there. Ultimately, it’s going to make us better. Everybody’s competing, everybody’s up to play since Rob came in. We all get along. That’s the main thing, bringing someone in that fits with us and fits in our [locker] room, because we spend time with each other more than anyone – breaking down film, installing [plays], doing all these things – so it’s good to have Rob in there because he fits with us, we’re all good friends, we joke around and have a good time, but we also compete.”
The quarterback competition is gathering attention with the rest of the offense, too.
Creel was Roback’s go-to target near the end of the 2013 season, pulling in 18 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown in the team’s final three games.
The receiver said he feels good about the competition.
“Adding Rob, and Reggie stepping up and Brogan obviously staying strong – it’s competition every day, so therefore the balls are there, everyone’s hungry to play, hungry to start – to me, it’s a good thing,” Creel said.
Hansen said he feels good about the quarterback competition, too.
“The competition there is awesome,” he said. “You look out there and see Brogan making plays, Bolden making plays and you see Reggie making plays. Right now, I couldn’t be happier about how they’re doing. They’re learning a new offense like we are, so you’ve got to be patient with everyone on the team, but it’s been an awesome competition.”
The question – is there a starter?
Creighton said not yet.
“No, we’re not there yet,” he said. “I mean, we could, but it’s competitive right now.”
Creighton expanded that thought: “We’re still in, I don’t know how to explain it, but coaching mode,” he said. “We’re not just sitting back and evaluating, we’re coaching whoever’s in there – whoever’s listening – how to be better.”
On the ground
Senior Bronson Hill had a monster season for the Eagles in 2013. He rushed for 1,134 yards on 196 carries – despite being benched for a significant period of time.
He said he wants to do even better this season.
“[I want to be] First Team All-MAC,” he said. “I know I’m not that far from the all-time rushing record here [at EMU], so that’d be nice to get that, too.”
He’s right – with 2,006 career yards, Hill is only 1,491 yards short of Gary Patton’s 3,497 yards from 1984-1987.
If Hill wants to break that record, he’ll need some help from Hansen and the rest of the offensive line.
“Well, I know that we only lost one person, so it’s pretty much the same [offensive] line,” he said. “Everyone’s gotten stronger, faster [and] smarter, so that’s better.”
Hill and Creel both said they want to win the MAC title this season, but Hill said he had one additional expectation.
“To not lose here at ‘The Factory’ – I don’t expect to lose here,” he said.
The season starts August 30 against Morgan State University.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho