Team preview: Eastern Michigan
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
Is this the year? Going into a new season, many teams might ask that question in regard to win winning a championship. The Eastern Michigan program has a different spin on it. The Eagles are asking the question, "Is this the year we have a winning season?" EMU is going into its 10th year without fielding a winner, with a 6-5 mark in 1995 the only think that saved them from a losing decade in the 1990s. Last year's 4-7 mark has been the high point of the 2000s so far. The program seemed to take some steps in the right direction last year in Jeff Genyk's first year in charge: • For the first time since 1986, EMU beat rivals Central and Western Michigan in the same season. • The Eagles finished .500 in the MAC for the first time in six years. • One of the EMU's players generated national attention. Kicker Andrew Wellock was a third-team All-American and runner-up for the Lou Groza Award. But the biggest accomplishment Genyk accomplished in his first year was to teach the Eagles how to finish. "It took us four or five games before we figured out how to take victory in the fourth quarter," the former Northwestern assistant said. "We got into a mode where the kids believed we could win games." The Eagles might believe it, but now they have to go out and just do it. And the road to victory this season for EMU figures to be led by its offense, which returns seven starters from a unit that averaged 29.8 points per game last season. The Eagles know they will have at least two key pieces to their spread offense back in senior quarterback Matt Bohnet and junior receiver Eric Deslauriers. Senior tailback Anthony Sherrell can make it three if he graduated by August to earn back his final year of eligibility. "We know who we are and how we have to win games," said Genyk, who thinks he has between 16-17 solid players on offense and should be able to handle any injuries there with the depth. "I think we are injury proof." Bohnet's 21 touchdown passes ranked him fourth in the MAC, and his favorite target was Deslauriers, who is the top receiver in the league back after catching 84 passes for 1,257 yards and 13 touchdowns. Sherrell was also a solid contributor with 854 yards on the ground and 11 touchdowns, which tied him for third in the MAC. Maybe even more important than the numbers the trio put up is that Howard Feggins' spread offense is now fully installed. Last year, the Eagles only knew about 25 percent after the spring game. "Last year we didn't even know what we had until the third or fourth game," Genyk said. "We found out we can be an explosive team last year." EMU's defense is a little different story. The unit was one of the worst in the MAC last season, allowing a conference-high 41.6 points per game (14th) and 469.6 yards-per-game (13th), so maybe it's a good thing only five starters are back. "On defense we are going to have seven new starters and be playing a lot of young players," Genyk said. One place the Eagles will not have any new faces is on the coaching staff. Genyk returned the entire group from his first season and said the continuity there should benefit the team, especially with the younger players on defense. The defense will have to grow up in a hurry with trips to Cincinnati and Michigan in the first month of the season along with a home game against Louisiana-Lafayette. While EMU might have its hands full with Michigan, both Cincinnati and Louisiana-Lafayette are winnable games before the Eagles head into the MAC portion of the season. The real test of the season, though, will come in October with back-to-back games on the road against Toledo and Northern Illinois -- the top two teams in the West division -- and then a home game against East division power Miami. "That's a very challenging stretch," Genyk said. "If we want to contend for a MAC title we need to win two or three of those games." If the Eagles can accomplish that, they should also be able to achieve their first winning season since 1995.
Last season, the Eagles had a battle of Bohnets at quarterback. Matt Bohnet (6-2, 230) won the job and went on to start all 11 games, finishing sixth in the nation in total offense with 293.70 yards per game while getting comfortable in the spread offense. Bohnet completed 228-of-434 passing for 2,807 yards and 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for another 424 yards and even caught a pass for 11 yards. As a first-year starter, Bohnet had some highs and some lows. Against CMU, he threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns, but in the season finale against NIU he threw five interceptions. "He's a relentless worker and has improved his throwing motion," Genyk said. "He's going to give us a chance to win every game and compete for a MAC title." The Eagles better keep him healthy because younger brother, junior Ken Bohnet (6-4, 219), has moved to tight end and the rest of the quarterbacks are young and inexperienced -- red-shirt freshman Tyler Jones (6-1, 198) and sophomore Korey Cranor (5-11, 190). Jones impressed the coaching staff in the spring and figures to earn the backup job. "He can be a special player," Genyk said. "He's a very athletic young man." Four freshmen arrive in the latest recruiting class, including three players from Michigan -- Northern graduate Dontayo Gage (6-0, 180), Saginaw product Jermaine Jenkins (6-2, 190) and St. John's Andy Schmitt were all members of The Detroit News' Blue Chip list. The fourth quarterback slated to arrive is Wayne Campbell (6-5, 205) from Charlat High in Port Charlotte, Fla.
If Anthony Sherrell (5-9, 193) does not return, the Eagles will have some talented, but unproven replacements to battle for the job. Sherrell wouldn't be an easy guy to replace either, because he's a double threat out of the backfield (20 receptions, 183 yards, one touchdown). Senior Nelson Drew (5-11, 208) and junior Pierre Walker (5-7, 190) spent the spring competing for the starting job. Drew rushed for only 87 yards on 20 carries last season, while Walker, who had a great spring, carried 46 times for 183 yards and one touchdown. The other returning player at tailback is red-shirt freshman Travis McKinney (5-6, 171). Even with the possibility of Sherrell coming back, the Eagles went out and loaded up on freshmen running backs, signing five. One of the top backs in the mix is Detroit product Terrence Blevins (6-1, 225), who also plays linebacker. "Terrence Blevins is a very big get for us," Genyk told The Detroit News. "We feel he's the next Jerome Bettis. He's very big at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. We feel he's a Big Ten player and we're going to give him the ball." Another solid recruit is Cleveland, Ohio standout Tim Conner (5-10, 185) from Glenville, who rushed for 1,509 yards and 24 touchdowns last season to earn all-state honors. Texas native Olufemi Ogundare (5-8, 195) rushed for more than 1,100 yards despite battling some injuries at Bellaire High last fall. The other two backs are Detroit product Cory Everson (5-11, 195) from Mumford and North Miami Beach's Dwayne Harrison (5-9, 195).
An area of strength on offense for EMU is at receiver, with returning starters Eric Deslauriers (6-4, 201) and senior A.J. Bennett (5-9, 196). Deslauriers turned into a star for the Eagles last season, with three 10-plus catch games and two 200-yard plus games. In the four overtime game against CMU, he caught 14 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns. "He's a legitimate big-time receiver," Genyk said. Bennett, who started seven games, was the second-leading receiver last year with 36 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns, but the Eagles need him to be more consistent. There's a host of players vying for the third receiver spot, and maybe even push Bennett as the No. 2 guy. Among them are sophomore Duan Bracey, who caught 25 passes for 266 yards last season but missed the spring with a shoulder injury, and junior return specialist Trumaine Riley (5-7, 161), who caught 20 balls for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Travis Lewis (6-2, 191), who was also slowed in the spring by a shoulder injury, and sophomore Mark Borders (5-11, 180) are also in the hunt. Two newcomers at receiver are Dayton, Ohio native John Bonner (6-3, 185) from Chaminade Julienne and Cleveland product Jacory Stone (6-1, 185), who played high school football with Conner at Glenville. At tight end, the Eagles have assembled an interesting collection of talent. Ken Bohnet is a former quarterback, while junior R.J. Montemayor (6-4, 240) is a transfer from Cisco (Texas) Community College. Also in the mix is converted linebacker John Wester (6-1, 235), a senior who made the change in the spring. The fourth player is reserve sophomore Zach Lappan (6-3, 230). Cooper City (Fla.) freshman Robert Fischman (6-3, 220) was expected to join the mix in the summer.
Both tackles are gone, but the middle of the Eagles' offensive line is sound with the trio starting all 11 games together last season. Senior center Mike Romelli (6-2, 296) is the man in the middle, and has started 26 straight games dating back to his freshman season. At guard, sophomore Khalid Walton (6-3, 314) returns to the left side, while sophomore Chris Thomas (6-4, 320) is back on the right side. Thomas, who can also play center, missed spring workouts with a foot injury. "We have a very veteran unit there," Genyk said. EMU lost a pair of 300-pound tackles, but the head coach prefers a sleeker lineman on the outside. He found two in senior Gemayel Cowser (6-2, 270), who moves into the left tackle position, and junior Courtney Ford (6-4, 261), who won the right tackle job. The backup tackles are red-shirt freshman Jake Bleeker (6-4, 303) and junior Kevin Minor (6-2, 260), a converted tight end. The third guard will be sophomore Greg Egbuogu (6-3, 312), and red-shirt freshman Desi Mayner (6-2, 257) is the backup center. Other linemen include red-shirt freshmen Brian Guimon (6-3, 286) and Ross Peterson (6-6, 185), and junior John Riske (6-5, 253). Two Michigan linemen are part of the freshmen class: Andy Fretz (6-3, 250) from Central in Kalamazoo and Nick Toth (6-4, 295) from Chelsea, but neither figures to see the field in their first year.
It would be hard to improve on the production of Andrew Wellock (5-11, 168) from last season. The junior is coming off a campaign that included 21-of-23 field goals made and 32-for-33 on extra points for 95 points. Wellock was a perfect 8-for-8 inside 29 yards. "He's the best player on our team," Genyk said. He's so good that the Eagles also use him for punting, where he averaged only 37.2 yards per kick in his first season handling that job, but did enough to earn the job again this season.
The other line, along with the rest of the defense, is where the Eagles need to get better this season. EMU was horrible against the run last year, allowing 191.9 yards per game (12th in the MAC), and managed only 19 sacks (11th). When you put up those kinds of numbers, that usually means jobs are open the next season -- even if there's starters coming back. Senior Jean Olivier Gagnon-Gordillo (6-2, 241) is the top returning player. "He was steady for us," said Genyk about the defensive end who had 48 tackles and two sacks as a junior. Junior Kevin Howe (6-2, 236) will start the season at the other end. Howe, who can run about a 4.6 in the 40, started four of the 11 games he appeared in last year and had 25 tackles and three sacks, which ranked second on the team. The top backup is senior Matt Lisek (6-1, 254), who had 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks in seven starts last season. At tackle, the Eagles will have two new starters, sophomore Jason Jones (6-4, 231) and sophomore Josh Hunt (6-6, 300), who gives EMU a presence in the middle. Jones is a converted tight end who added some bulk to his frame in the off-season. Two other young players in the rotation inside are sophomore DeMarko Hughes (6-2, 308), who played five games as a reserve last year, and red-shirt freshman Chris Larkins (6-1, 262). "These guys fit the mode [at defensive tackle]," Genyk said. "We just want them playing better November 1 than on September 1." One newcomer who could jump right into the mix at end is freshman T.J. Lang (6-4, 270) from in-state Brother Rice. Lang is coming off a season that featured 59 tackles, 8.5 sacks and one fumble recovery to earn first-team all-state honors. The other freshman is a local product, Shane Dillon (6-3, 340) from nearby Lincoln High. Dillon, a two-way player like Lang, had 35 tackles on defense last fall.
One of the few players that turned in a solid season on defense was senior linebacker Kevin Harrison, who was second in the nation in tackles with 146. The Eagles' tackling machine is gone, but there are still plenty of stops to be made. Senior Steve Bednarik (6-1, 229) is the veteran of the unit and is coming off a season where he finished fifth on the team in tackles with 69 in nine starts at middle linebacker. However, Bednarik is going to have to earn a job this year as EMU has a host of players vying for playing time in the middle and on the weak side. The only penciled in starter going into the season is sophomore Darren Matthews (6-0, 200), a former tailback, on the strong side. Bednarik will battle against junior Brandon Watkins (6-1, 246), red-shirt freshman Jason Headen (6-3, 195), sophomore Corey Riley (6-2, 216), and freshman Cortland Selman (6-1, 215) for one of the jobs. Selman was part of the 2004 recruiting class, but did not qualify academically. "We need to keep getting better as tacklers, on defeating blocks and we must be a better team from a pursuit standpoint," Genyk said. Freshmen could also jump right into the competition, and the Eagles landed some pretty good ones with their new class. Daniel Holtzclaw (6-2, 220) set a school record at Enid High (Okla.) with 25 tackles in a game last fall and finished with 123. The other freshman is linebacker/safety Spenser Smith (6-2, 205) from Detroit's Mackenzie High. Smith was a star on both sides of the ball with 117 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions to go with 970 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Also part of the incoming group is sophomore Michael Richardson (6-1, 205), who arrives from Harper (Ill.) Junior College after a 78-tackle, three-interception season.
One area where the Eagles have a few veterans on defense is in the secondary, and EMU was the MAC's worst pass defense (277.7 ypg) last year, that's a good thing and a bad thing. Seniors Corey Parker (6-0, 180) and Rontrell Woodruff (5-10, 201) combined to start all 11 games at strong safety last season. Woodruff, who led the team with three interceptions and had 73 tackles, will take over the job full-time this year. Parker, who started three games, moves to free safety. The other veteran in the secondary is senior cornerback Steven Lewis (5-8, 170), who started eight games and had 41 tackles. "Those three seniors -- our defensives secondary will be the result of how well those three play," Genyk said. "They are a veteran group." Sophomore Blake Smith (6-0, 176) appears to have the inside edge at the other corner position. Red-shirt freshman Victor Alejo (5-11, 164) and junior Geoff Pope (5-11, 182), and sophomore Terrell Brumfield (5-10, 180) add some depth there. At safety, sophomore Zedrick Bryant (6-0, 181) was slowed by a shoulder injury in the spring. When he's back healthy he'll battle sophomore John Neely (6-0, 190), red-shirt freshman Jordan Bradley (5-9, 182) and converted quarterback Brian Ceckiewicz (6-2, 197) for backup roles. Some of EMU's top recruits will also be part of this unit, including three speed burners from Florida. St. Petersburg Catholic graduate Everett Barney and Ft. Lauderdale Northeast's Todd Brown (5-11, 180) are the kind of playmakers Genyk wants on his defense along with Dwyer grad Chris May (5-11, 190). Barney played only two games as a high school senior because of a knee injury, but he was a first-team All-Miami Dade County selection as a junior with 52 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Brown was slowed by a shoulder injury as a senior, but has 4.4 speed and strong leadership skills. May was his team's MVP after making 44 tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions to go with 582 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Smith and another local player, Sexton's Jacob Wyatt (6-0, 170) might also see some time in the defensive backfield.
With Riley, who also plays center field for the EMU baseball team, the team has its top kick and punt returner back from a year ago. The jitterbug junior returned 20 punts for 160 yards and 36 kicks for another 646 yards. Genyk likes his experience back there, but could also throw in some of the freshmen on special teams. Sophomore Jerry Topolinski (6-1, 229) earned a scholarship for his long snapping abilities.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
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