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Eastern to unveil new QB, defensive scheme in opener

Al Willman
Special to The Detroit News
Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said he's comfortable with either of his top two quarterbacks in the starting role.

Ypsilanti — For the last two years, Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton has been excited for the upcoming season.

And each of the last two seasons, his team has come up woefully short, amassing a 3-21 record under Creighton.

At Creighton’s first news conference of the season on Monday, his excitement was definitely present. As for the results, those will obviously come later.

“We still have a week’s worth of practice,” Creighton said. “Camp is definitely over. We feel really good about how we came out of camp. You don’t want to lose anybody to injury. We, overall, are pretty healthy. We still have some time to get guys healthy this week.

"(For) our game week preparation, there will be a different focus. I think (there’s) a heightened sense of urgency to some degree. We did a really good job in camp of staying focused and staying on task.”

Eastern begins its 2016 season Friday against FCS school Mississippi Valley State. The two programs have never met, however, it is not EMU’s first time playing a team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. In 2011, the Eagles — in the first year of Ron English’s 6-6 season — beat Alabama State, 14-7.

“(For) the first game every year, you spend eight months collecting information knowing that you can’t wholeheartedly trust any of it,” Creighton said. “But that’s true for anybody. We’ve never played them before, but we’ve done as much research as we can to prepare for their offense, defense and their special teams units.

"Part of the preparation for Week 1 — really every week, but more so in Week 1 — is for the guys to know that this is what we think and what we expect, but you have to be ready for the X-factor.”

For the last two years, Reggie Bell was Eastern’s starting quarterback in the season opener. Bell is now in Big Rapids, competing for the starting job at Ferris State. Redshirt junior Brogan Roback, whose results have not matched his four-star hype in parts of two seasons, was expected to be the starter. But Roback was suspended last week for a violation of team rules.

Enter Todd Porter.

O'Connor healthy, hungry for wins at Eastern Michigan

A transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas, Porter, a 6-foot-3, 204-pound junior, is coming off a 1,000-plus yards passing season to go along with nearly 300 yards rushing. Before that, he played one game at Western Kentucky as a true freshman two years ago.

When Friday comes, Porter will have exactly 44 practices worth of Division I experience.

“We have confidence for sure,” Creighton said of Porter. “I don’t know that the guys feel pressure at all. I mean, it’s more of an excitement to get to playing again.”

Creighton said he’s counting on his offensive line, which returns four starters from a season ago — minus guard Darien Terrell, who announced over the weekend on his Instagram account that he would not be playing for his senior season.

“Regardless of who our starting quarterback is, our veteran offensive line is something that we’re going to be relying on, both in the run and the pass game,” Creighton said. “We think that’s going to be definitely a bright spot on our football team.”

Creighton said Shaq Vann, who ran for 586 yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season, has continued to improve in the offseason.

“There was no surprise to us whatsoever about how productive he was and how good he was this last year,” Creighton said of Vann. “I think, to answer your question, he’s a captain, you know, going into his redshirt sophomore year. I think that talks about the respect that folks have for him as a leader and as a person, and respect for his game, as well.”

On defense, the Eagles have switched to a 4-2-5 scheme from its base 3-4, and have a new defensive coordinator: Neal Neathery, formerly of Texas-San Antonio.

“Even though it’s new, it doesn’t feel new anymore, which I think is a good sign,” Creighton said of the 4-2-5. “I think our guys are both comfortable and excited, and that’s why you play. Friday night, we’ll get to see it for the first time and see just how excited and how comfortable they are.”

EMU redshirt senior defensive lineman Mike Brown said he’s noticed a change already. The Eagles return another defensive captain, Pat O’Connor, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.

“I feel like we’ve created a culture on defense, and on the team as well, that we’re workers,” Brown said. “We come in every day, put our hats on and lace up our shoes to go to work. We’re there every day to win the practice and to win the game at the end of the week that we’re preparing for. I feel like the mood of the team is workers. That’s what we are.”

Al Willman is a freelance writer.

Twitter: @AlWillmanSports

Eastern Michigan vs. Mississippi Valley State

When: Friday, 6 p.m.

Where: Rynearson Stadium, Ypsilanti

TV/radio: ESPN3/WatchESPN, WEMU-FM

Line: N/A

Notables: This is the first matchup between the two teams. Mississippi Valley State coach Rick Comegy is 156-82 in 26 years as a coach, but is only 3-19 in three years with the Delta Devils — similar to Creighton, whose career record is 142-67 (3-21 at EMU).

Junior quarterback Todd Porter will take his first Division I snap after transferring to Eastern Michigan after the 2015 season. Redshirt sophomore running back Shaq Vann, who played behind Darius Jackson — a sixth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys — last season, running for 586 yards and five touchdowns, is Eastern’s No. 1 back. Behind an offensive line EMU coach Chris Creighton calls the team’s biggest asset, Vann could be in for a big year.