Eastern Michigan Eagles (2000: 3-8)
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Coach and programJeff Woodruff is between a rock and the proverbial hard place. Everyone has to get that first head-coaching job to move up the ladder. But landing in Ypsilanti goes in the book as one of the toughest assignments in Division I-A. This program has one winning record in the last decade and one of the weakest fan and media followings anywhere.
Sure, they’re in the Detroit environs, which you would think might help the coverage and recruiting. That might be true if the mighty University of Michigan wasn’t more than a few miles down the road.
So, Woodruff can hope to get this group back to adequacy and that’s about it. Toledo and Western Michigan look like they will be the leaders in the MAC for a good while. But he can catch the rest of the West, and with some creative scheduling and imagination on offense, this can happen pretty soon.
The Kent State grad coached quarterbacks, then coordinated the offense for Don James at Washington en route to three Rose Bowls and a 1991 national title. After two years back on the high school circuit in Arizona, he went to work on the staff of Dick Tomey at the University of Arizona. His team will continue with a single back and will show more sets with three or even four wideouts, looking a little more like Marshall than last fall.
“As a staff, we only know of one way to do this,” Woodruff said. “We wanted to improve a lot of things -- a better team chemistry, academics, work in the eight room. This is to be a ground-up restoration of a program.”
Eastern won its first game of the season at Connecticut, lost seven in a row and then won two of its last three at home over Central Michigan and Northern Illinois. Those two wins against MAC West teams occurred in front of a combined crowd of about 14,000, which first-hand attendees would describe as a very generous estimate.
“We just have to win, that’s all there is to it,” the coach said. “People will then jump on the bandwagon and say they’ve been there since day one. I’ve seen it, I’ve been there.”
OffenseWoodruff had a senior who made the learning curve a little flatter last fall in senior star Walt Church. A starter for three seasons, Church gave the new head coach at least one part of the offense he could rely on when he arrived in Ypsilanti. Church graduated owning virtually every EMU passing record after taking over for Charlie Batch.
So who is left with experience? Well, virtually no one. Junior Troy Edwards (6-2, 199) is 36-of-59 for his career, but completed only seven passes last year and started his only game in ’99. Junior Jeff Crooks (6-3, 210) is a transfer from Fullerton (Calif.) Junior College and led all California junior college quarterbacks with 2,293 passing yards and 18 touchdowns.
“It’s really a competition between those two,” Woodruff said.
Eastern was one of the worst rushing teams in America before Woodruff got here last year (909 yards in ’99). Things improved a little in 2000, but not enough -- 1,047 yards was the tally, thanks to the difficulty in finding a feature back on this roster and an offensive line plagued with injuries.
While the numbers weren’t much better, the Eagles did find their feature back of the future in sophomore Ashantti Watson (5-11, 185). Recruited as an athlete and expected to play defensive back, Watson played all 11 games and gained 353 yards on 85 carries (4.2 yards per carry), scored four touchdowns, caught 16 passes and returned 10 punts and nine kickoffs.
Last year, Eastern “ran’’ the ball by using the short pass. Outs, bubble screens and the occasional inside slant were the rule of the day and resulted in MAC-leading catch numbers for senior Kenny Christian (6-1, 198). Christian caught 78 balls for 808 yards in just 10 games. Sure he only averaged 10.0 yards per catch, but that was a better alternative than actually running between the tackles.
Defense and special teamsSenior James Turner (6-2, 272) and Jari Brown (6-4, 280) are the guys inside at defensive tackle and combined for 17 starts on the line last year on the way to 95 tackles and six sacks.
The defensive line may be rolling like the lines of a hockey team for a while, but the linebackers are almost set in stone.
Senior Kenny Philpot (6-2, 250) is an All-MAC performer at strong side and last fall led the team with 108 stops to go with five quarterback sacks.
The Eagles were supposed to have three starters back in the secondary for 2001, but two had already played their way into the second-string by the end of spring practice.
Senior Maurice Ryland (6-0, 186) is a junior college transfer and still has his starting gig while senior Andrae Brooks (6-2, 192) did not at spring’s conclusion. Ryland had 43 tackles in 2000, while Brooks tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
Senior Toller Starnes (5-8, 197) is back after a quiet 2000. The team’s leading scorer the last two years made 11 of 14 field goals and 22 of 23 PATs.
Bottom lineThere are only a few games where the Eagles should be a non-factor this fall. Thanks to a more sensible schedule, the program should improve in the win column. Whether the quality of play actually advances is up to Woodruff and these players. Winning five games is not out of the question, though having two Division I-AA teams on the schedule smacks of what Toledo did in 2000 to pad out a win total. Still, wins are wins, and this is a program looking for absolutely anything positive on which to hang its hat.