Ypsilanti — Chris Creighton has done a good job to make Eastern Michigan competitive again, a far cry from 2002 when the Eagles defense gave up a Mid-American Conference record 566 points for an average of 47.1 a game under Jeff Woodruff or for that matter just five years ago when they allowed 45.2 points and were beaten by an average of nearly 27 points in Ron English’s final season.
Creighton, who took over for English following that 2013 season, took a few lumps of his own in his first couple of seasons before guiding the Eagles to their first winning season since 1995 in 2016, earning a bowl appearance, then finishing 5-7 last season when they lost six straight games by seven or fewer points while actually outscoring their opponents by a 313-280 margin for the season.
EMU’s defense has dramatically improved in recent years, a reason the Eagles are in contention to win games.
But, now Creighton must replace standout quarterback Brogan Roback (2,895 yards, 19 TDs) to get the Eagles back in position to contend for wins … and possibly take the next step and finish games.
The Eagles have depth at running back with Ian Eriksen, Shaq Vann and Blake Banham, but Creighton must replace several of his top receivers, including Sergio Bailey and Antoine Porter.
Creighton said the starting quarterback for the 2018 season will be won in practice this August heading into the season opener Aug. 31 against Monmouth at Rynearson Stadium before a Week No. 2 trip to Purdue Sept. 8.
“Some of what we wanted to accomplish, you have returners and you want them to continue to get better, they have to take another step and we saw that at every position, and some of that is for guys to be on the field and some of that is for depth,” Creighton said. “Some of our positions we have great depth with a lot of guys back and at some others we’ve been hit by graduation.
“The chemistry of this group is awesome. I think the leadership will be outstanding. Being the fifth year and the entire team. We’ve all come in together and I think we’ll take another step in our overall identity. I think with our receivers being banged up, and the graduation (losses), I think we’d be leaning on our defense which I think is outstanding and going to continue to get better.”
Creighton liked what he got from quarterbacks Tyler Wiegers, sophomore Isaac Stiebeling and Aaron Jackson (Detroit Cass Tech) who graduated early so he could compete for the starting job.
Wiegers (Detroit Country Day) came to EMU as a graduate transfer from Iowa with one year of eligibility left, a reason he could emerge as the starter come August.
Wiegers completed 10-of-14 passes for 135 yards in the spring game April 7.
“People want to know about our quarterback position with Tyler Wiegers, Isaac Stiebeling, Aaron Jackson and (freshman) Preston Hutchinson,” Creighton said. “It’s been good. They’ve all improved. We haven’t had a guy say that this is my team, that hasn’t happened yet, but that’s okay because it’s good competition and they’re all trying to learn and get better and I think that will continue through camp.
“He’s (Wiegers) really bright. I’m just really impressed with how quickly he’s picked things up, you know just coming in January. He was out there today making checks, getting us in the right play.”
On Jackson, Creighton said: “He’s made of all the right stuff. He’s weighing like 220 pounds right now. Obviously, one of the things that’s going to make him great is that he can use both his arm and his feet. In two of the scrimmages this spring, he wanted to go live so we let him go live and he had a couple of nice runs and had a stiff arm so he has the ability to do both which is a great thing.”
Stiebeling feels more confident than he was a year ago as a freshman.
“I was fortunate to sit behind a good quarterback with Brogan and learned a lot,” said the 6-foot-4 Stiebeling, a three-star recruit who led Fort Wayne Snider to a 5A state championship his senior year. “We had a close-knit group with the freshmen class and I learned a lot last year. Coach (Aaron) Keen, becoming the offensive coordinator, he’s probably one of the best teachers that I’ve ever had.”
No doubt, an area of strength is at defensive end with Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby returning, along with junior safety Brody Hoying from a unit which ranked second in the MAC in scoring defense (23.3) and total defense (363.6).
“Every day we walk into our meeting rooms and Coach (defensive coordinator Neal) Neathery has written on the board our six straight losses with the score right next to them for a little reminder,” pointed out Hoying. “Twice a week when we have our six-thirty meetings in the morning you walk in and that’s the first thing you see and he’s playing all of our bad plays when teams are scoring touchdowns on us. It reminds us of that bad taste we had in our mouths so it gives us something to fight for that day, like what we need to get better at.”
Creighton brought in Ben Needham as defensive line coach to replace Chuck Bullough who has moved on to Michigan State to join Mark Dantonio’s staff.