When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookies reported for camp, three of coach Chris Creighton's Eastern Michigan players were on the roster – two more than Alabama and Ferris State had, by the way.
Pat O'Connor played last year as a defensive end and was a seventh-round pick of the Lions in 2017. Offensive lineman Cole Gardner has two seasons' experience and was a free agent, and wide receiver Sergio Bailey signed this spring as a free agent.
"They are all definitely driven," Creighton said in an e-mail. " They know what hard work is and are willing to put that work in. They all have a persistent mindset in that they realize that this, too, can be a process. They all have great ability, and yet they all know that ability alone is not what is going to allow them to make it. I would throw Andrew Wylie and Darius Jackson in this same group. Obviously, I am super proud of all of them."
Wylie and Jackson are former Eagles on NFL rosters, Wylie an offensive lineman for the Chiefs and Jackson a running back with the Cowboys.
The Detroit News contacted O'Connor, Gardner and Bailey to find out about the pro game and their days at EMU. Here's what they had to say.
What is the biggest adjustment from the college game to the NFL game? “The biggest adjustment would be competing against the best-of-the-best. In college, you were able to get away with little minuscule things, but in the pros, you really can’t get away with anything. It’s just the bigger, faster atmosphere amongst everyone else.”
How do you handle the heat in Tampa? “Just hydrate. Come in here, stretch early in the morning. Get yourself ready for the day. Take care of the body. Also, I obviously cut my hair. I used to have long hair, so cutting that helps adjust.”
Do you have a favorite part of training camp? “Spending time with guys in the locker room. There’s a miniature basketball hoop in there, so I like playing with Jacquizz Rodgers, Gerald McCoy or some of the other D-linemen in the locker room.”
How about a least-favorite part of training camp? “I would say the heat. I just hate the heat. That’s the only bad thing. Everything else is the same. It’s just football.”
How do you describe coach Dirk Koetter? What is he like? “He’s intense. He lets you know when you do well and when you do wrong. He’s always watching. Doesn’t matter if you’re the top-of-the-top or the bottom-of-the-barrel, he always makes sure he coaches you and gets you right regardless of whatever you do.”
Do you remember your first play in the NFL, be it at practice or in a game? What were you feeling, and how did it go? “My first play was against the Packers, and I fell. Specifically, I remember falling, and it was just – you know – getting the jitters out. That was my first play.”
Looking back at your time with coach Creighton at Eastern Michigan, what did you learn from him? What is Coach Creighton like as a coach and as a person? “I would say the biggest things I learned was to just play hard. He was a super intense guy. You know, he’s not going to cuss you out or anything, but he’s going to get at you and make sure you do everything the right way. Do it right on and off the field because it really helps you become a better football player and a better man. He’s helped me shape myself to get here, so I’m super grateful for what he’s done.”
Regarding football, what did you learn at Eastern Michigan that sticks with you today? “I would say just to overcome adversity. We struggled my first few years at Eastern, battling through a shoulder surgery. You know, just getting myself better as best as I could. And then, finishing up on a strong note, making it to a bowl game in Eastern which propelled me to coming here. It’s a great feeling.”
Do you have a prediction for Eastern’s 2018 record? Any reasons for that prediction? “They’re going to win the MAC (Mid-American Conference) this year. They return so many people. They have defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris – they have a great squad. I’m going to be watching out for them.”
The Eagles won a combined three games from 2014-15 but have gone 7-6 and 5-7 since. How do you describe the turnaround and where do you envision the program going in the future? Are there any obstacles to achieving and maintaining a winning record? “Yeah, I would say just keep the recruiting going. Get the guys that fit in our program. Bring in the good eggs and just get some football players who know how to do it on and off the field. They can propel themselves. and the sky’s the limit for them.”
If you spoke to the Eagles before they faced Monmouth in the Aug. 31 opener, what would you tell them? “I would just say do what you’re coached to do. It’s just like practice but a little easier because practice is so much harder. Now you can just finally go against an opponent that you’ve been working (against) for so long. Just go out there and do what you do.”
Describe the decision to have your hair cut earlier this year, and do you expect to keep it for the football season or grow it back out? “It was part of the Cut for a Cure, and I donated them to Locks of Love – it’s something that I always wanted to do for a charity fund, and I’m just going to keep redoing it for as long as I play football. I’m going to grow it out, cut it, grow it and donate it.”
What is the biggest adjustment from the college game to the NFL game? “The mental aspect I think is the biggest. Once you get the plays down you can start playing fast, but the playbook is pretty big, and you’ve just got to get to know everything. There’s a lot of details to everything. I think the biggest adjustment is learning the playbook and getting in and being able to be mentally focused every day. Doing what you’ve got to do out on the field.”
How do you handle the heat in Tampa? “You’ve just got to hydrate. Drink all day. If there’s somebody with the water bottle, you’ve just got to take some. You’ve got to keep hydrated all day.”
Do you have a favorite part of training camp? “Being out and competing. Being with the guys and just hanging out. Doing your job and going to work every day.”
How about a least-favorite part of training camp? “I don’t know about that one. You know, you’ve just got to grind. It is what it is.”
How do you describe Coach Koetter? What is he like? “I love him, he’s a good guy. If you mess up, he’s going to get on you, but you know he’s doing it to make sure you’re doing what you’ve got to do. He’ll take care of you and make sure we’re all on the same page. In the end, you know he cares about you.”
Do you remember your first play in the NFL, be it at practice or in a game? What were you feeling, and how did it go? “There were just so many plays, I don’t remember the first one. Just coming out and doing each play at a time. Just every one’s going to have a feeling after. I don’t remember what the first one was.”
Looking back at your time with Coach Creighton at Eastern Michigan, what did you learn from him? What is Coach Creighton like as a coach and as a person? “I learned how to have an impact. He always talked about doing charity work. Going out and impacting people and being a great guy and just being the best you can be in every aspect of your life – that’s what I’ve learned from him. As a coach, just like Coach Koetter, he’s going to get on you when you mess up, but you know he cares about you in the end. He wants you to be the best you can. As a person, he’s a good guy. Like I said, he cares about you. He’ll look after you. He takes care of his players.”
Regarding football, what did you learn at Eastern Michigan that sticks with you today? “Never quit. You know, my first four years weren’t the best there. We had a rough schedule, but my senior year we went to a bowl game for the first time in 26 years, so I learned to just keep putting your head down and keep going to work every day, never quit.”
Do you have a prediction for Eastern’s 2018 record? Any reasons for that prediction? “You know, win that (Mid-American Conference) championship. Got to go for it. I just think the boys are ready to grind and go get that championship.”
The Eagles won a combined three games from 2014-15 but have gone 7-6 and 5-7 since. How do you describe the turnaround and where do you envision the program going in the future? Are there any obstacles to achieving and maintaining a winning record? “I think the boys just have to go and do their thing. We had a turnaround. We weren’t the best, but we turned it around at the end. You’ve just got to put your nose down and go grind every day. They had five wins last year. … Go get that thing and we’ll be at the top of the conference this year.”
What would you say to those who still question whether EMU should have a football program? “The impact that we had around the community is bigger than what everyone sees. We might not have had the best turnouts in the stands, but the things that it’s done for me, Sergio and Pat – it’s given us a chance to do things we never thought we would do.”
If you spoke to the Eagles before they faced Monmouth in the Aug. 31 opener, what would you tell them? “Just go do your thing. Play loose, play fast. Just put your nose down. Go get that thing. Don’t take them too lightly and focus, fight, finish.”
Pat O’Connor got his hair cut this summer for the team’s Cut for a Cure charity event. What are your thoughts on the look? “It was a long time coming. That thing was getting ugly. He needed that cut.”
As a rookie, what's the best way for you to make an impression with the coaches? “The best impression is just to know your material. Whatever we install, whatever the coaches teach us that morning or that night, they expect you to apply it to the field for the next practice. As a rookie, it’s just all about knowing your material.”
What is the biggest adjustment from the college game to the NFL game? “The NFL and college are two different ballgames. This is the best of the best, so everyone is the best at their position. It’s just all about learning and growing as an NFL player.”
How do you handle the heat in Tampa? “At first it was hard for me during rookie mini-camp when I got here. It was tough for me, but I adjusted. Just started drinking more water and just focused more during practice.”
Do you have a favorite part of training camp so far? “My favorite part of training camp is really just learning. Just learning the playbook because I know I can play football, but it’s just all about learning how the system goes. Doing what the coaches want and not what you want. Just growing as an NFL rookie.”
How about a least-favorite part of training camp? “Waking up at 5 o’ clock in the morning. Plus, I’m from California, so being down here in Florida we’re three hours ahead. If I’m waking up at 5 a.m., that’s 2 a.m. where I’m from.”
How do you describe Coach Dirk Koetter? What is he like? “Coach Koetter is a great coach. He basically tells us to come out here and just keep working, keep working and know our material. Just to get better every day. He’s a great guy.”
Do you remember your first play in an NFL practice? What were you feeling and how did it go? “My first play I was a little nervous, but I do remember it. And to be honest, I executed what I was supposed to do. Every day I just grind to get better and be a better athlete.”
Looking back at your time with Coach Creighton at Eastern Michigan, what did you learn from him? What is Coach Creighton like as a coach and as a person? “He basically taught me that whatever you’re doing, put your all into it. And just to separate yourself from others. Work hard and overcome the hard times. Coach Creighton stuck to his word when I transferred from junior college to Eastern Michigan. He basically told me that the best players are going to play and as long as you come here to work and you do what you’re asked to do, that you’ll be successful. I still appreciate him to this day, just for the opportunity to go there.”
Regarding football, what did you learn at Eastern Michigan that sticks with you today? “That if I just stay committed to my craft that all things are possible. There’s nothing that you can’t do in life as long as you put your mind to it, put your heart to it and just believe in God. You know, all things are possible.”
Do you have a prediction for Eastern’s 2018 record? “I don’t have any prediction, but I do know that they’ll do well. I still talk to a lot of my teammates that are on Eastern right now and I just tell them that all things are possible – that they have the players, they have the coaches, they have the skills to overcome those tough games that people are doubting them on. They’ll shock the world, I’ll just say that.”
The Eagles won a combined three games from 2014-15 but have gone 7-6 and 5-7 since. How do you describe the turnaround and where do you envision the program going in the future? Are there any obstacles to achieving and maintaining a winning record? “Just to continue to get better. I went there for two years, and we got better two years straight. So, I just think it’s all about just growing and just sticking to the script. And having fun and believing in not only yourself but your teammates. Believing in the program. From now on, Eastern is only going to go up from here.”
If you spoke to the Eagles before they faced Monmouth in the Aug. 31 opener, what would you tell them? “I would say just continue to have that next-level mentality and just focus, fight and win. Believe in yourself. I don’t want to sound like a broken record. You have to believe in yourself in order to succeed on the field. When game day comes, all that hard work and dedication, all your talent, that’s where it’s all displayed.”
Pat O’Connor got his hair cut this summer for the team’s Cut for a Cure charity event. What are your thoughts on the look? “He needed that haircut, to be honest. As hot as it is out here, I don’t know how he had all that hair. I don’t know how I have hair. It’s just on the top, but Pat O’Connor, he had a great reason for doing that – to give back to the kids. It was just a great thing for him to do.”
Art Brooks is a retired Detroit News sports copy editor and former volunteer adviser at EMU's school newspaper, the Eastern Echo.