Eastern Michigan football has seen plenty of recent struggles as a program, particularly on defense.
Last season, saw a third consecutive 2-10 finish in which the defense averaged 41 points per game allowed. Despite that, there were bright-spots on the defense, primarily coming from the linebacking corps.
Anthony Zappone and Great Ibe were those bright-spots in 2014, and are looking to build on their individual success and lead a much-needed improvement from the Eagle defense.
Ibe, a senior from Philadelphia, finished the 2014 campaign with a team-leading 133 tackles with 11 tackles for a loss while starting all 12 games. Ibe is regarded highly in the MAC, as he was named to Athlon Sports’ Preseason First Team All-MAC.
So what can Ibe do to follow up for his senior season?
“Just being the best version of ourselves.” Ibe said. “Every day, we’re working to get better at what we do. Picking up on the little things, waking up early and doing our footwork drills or watching film, just being the best version of ourselves.”
Zappone, on the other hand, recorded 90 tackles for the Eagles last season with nine tackles for loss. The redshirt junior from Westlake, Ohio, also earned MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after the Oct. 10 victory against Buffalo where he record 13 tackles with three for loss.
And what can Zappone do to help the defense in 2015?
“[Ibe] covered off the field aspects, so on the field, I would say getting off the field on third down,” Zappone said. “That’s been a main struggle for us is giving up first downs when we need to be getting off the field on third down.”
As the veterans of the defense with safety Pudge Cotton lost from graduation and defensive lineman Pat O’Connor lost due to injury, both Zappone and Ibe must take over as the leaders. Leadership is one role both players are embracing for the upcoming season.
“Our leadership is about influence,” Ibe said. “Getting the next guy right, building depth throughout the whole team, and for the younger guys, we encourage them to work like they are the starter. You never know when they would have to start, never know when their number will be called, and we need to make sure they are ready. So we want to be the best example for working hard, being ready, and being prepared for the field.”
One thing EMU has to look forward to this season is a Thursday night home matchup Oct. 29 against Western Michigan. The game will be a night game televised nationally on ESPN, but neither Zappone nor Ibe are taking a different approach to that game despite the circumstances.
“It’s exciting whether it’s on national television or not,” Zappone said. “We are going to approach every game the same way, whether it’s Saturday at one o’clock with no TV or on Thursday on ESPN, it doesn’t matter, they are all the same.”
So while Zappone and Ibe have the mentality to be better and will lead by example, they need to lead a team to an better season on the field than in years past, and it will start with veterans such as both linebackers.