Ron English isn’t making excuses for Eastern Michigan being one of just two FBS teams to go winless last season, but he does note that the Eagles were a team in transition.
As he tried to implement a different, more physical style in his first season as the Eagles' head coach, several players and coaches failed to adapt.
That’s why the Eagles added six new coaches this offseason, including defensive coordinator and former Detroit Lions linebacker coach Phil Snow, linebackers coach Steve Morrison (the former defensive coordinator at Western Michigan) and defensive line coach Ken Delgado. They also lost 39 players, only 14 of whom were seniors.
“I want a physical football team and a team that’s going to be able to run the ball and stop the run on defense,” English said during the Mid-American Conference coaches call. “And so, we changed everything and the way we practiced changed and the amount of contact changed. And to be frank with you, I think that was hard on a lot of guys here that were maybe recruited to another type of system.”
Among the players who left was quarterback Kyle McMahon, who transferred to Grand Valley State. McMahon threw for 634 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions last season and was supposed to be the main competition to Alex Gillett, who finished the season as the Eagles' starter. Gillett completed 49.7 percent of his passes for 763 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions last year, which caused English to reopen the starting quarterback competition this spring with redshirt freshman Devontae Payne.
English said both players had good spring campaigns, but that he wasn’t ready to name a starter.
“Both exceeded expectations,” English said of his young quarterbacks. “Now, we hope they don’t throw the ball to the wrong guy or mishandle the football, but they both have different strengths. Devontae Payne's a 6-6 guy, very strong arm, really can throw the ball, and you know, we were pleased with the fact that he learned the game a lot better than we thought, he assimilated a lot better to what we were asking him to do.
“And then, Alex Gillett is a kid who is just going to do everything right. He’s really a winner. He’s a tough guy. He could be a starting safety on our team. He can run the ball and he makes good decisions. He spends forever studying. So, we were really pleased with the play of both of those quarterbacks. Now, are they where they need to be? No. But did they make huge strides? Yes.”
At the very least, English said his team responded better this spring than it did a year ago. While he’s waiting for several players to arrive on campus this fall, he said the guys who participated in spring bought in and are excited for the 2010 season.
Now the next step is getting a win.
“I think going into your second spring, the players know what the expectations are and the coaches know what they are,” English said. “I think you can practice faster because everybody is aware of what is going to take place and I think you can really focus on the things that need to be addressed. So, I was pleased with the spring, but we have a long, long way to go.”