Ypsilanti – Eastern Michigan opens its football season Thursday night against a Cincinnati team that returns just eight starters. But the biggest unknown for head coach Jeff Genyk is actually his own defense.
"With eight new (defensive) starters, we're thinking a lot more about us than them," Genyk said Monday at his weekly media conference. "We're probably going to have more mental errors than we've ever had. But we have to play fast. We are significantly faster and more athletic (on defense) than we were last year."
The Eagles' linebackers are strikingly inexperienced. True freshman Daniel Holtzclaw will start at middle linebacker. Darran Matthews, who played running back last season, and junior college transfer Michael Richardson will man the outside. Cincinnati's linebacking corps features a juco transfer and two players who recently converted to the position.
"There are six linebackers starting this game and not one of them has ever taken a Division I college snap (at the position)," Genyk said. "It should make for a lot of made plays and a lot of mistakes that lead to big plays for the other team."
EMU will have the more experienced offense Thursday night (6:45 p.m. on 89.1, WEMU with Matt Shepard and Rob Rubick), with senior quarterback Matt Bohnet and record-setting wideout Eric Deslauriers returning. The Eagles finished 2004 ranked 21st nationally in total offense. Cincinnati freshman Dustin Grutza will be making his first career start at quarterback, and the Bearcats have just three returning offensive starters.
But Genyk says his team's returning firepower is balanced by inexperience at other key offensive positions.
"We have two new offensive tackles, and a lot of what we do will depend on how Courtney Ford and Kevin Minor do," he said. "It still comes back to fundamentals. We have to hold on to the ball, we have to throw it to our guys. And we have to execute in the red zone."
On defense, with Holtzclaw, freshman tackle T.J. Lang and a host of other newcomers getting their first action, the task is even more basic.
"We need to get lined up."
Click on the audio icon at the top of the article to hear Coach Genyk's comments.
Conner's coming out: Genyk was direct when describing how true freshman Tim Conner won the starting tailback job from two-year starter Anthony Sherrell.
"He's been the most consistent mentally, physically and productively," Genyk said.
Now, Conner must maintain that consistency in game action. Genyk said he plans to play others at tailback as well, but Conner will get the first crack at winning the permanent job.
"It's going to be up to what he does on the field if he's going to be the starting tailback for four straight years or for four straight series," he said.
"A number of backs will get to play. Eventually, toward the Mid-American Conference season, I like to have a starting tailback, a guy that's going to have 20 to 25 carries. With our depth, we don't need to have a guy get 35 or 40 carries."
Genyk admits to being intrigued, as many fans are, with how the tailback competition plays out.
"We'll be watching them quite closely," he said.
Grabbing Grutza: Genyk said he hopes EMU's quick defensive line can make Grutza uncomfortable in his UC debut.
"We should be in position to give that quarterback less time," he said With (Kevin) Howe and (Jason) Jones rushing, along with T.J. Lang and (Olivier) Gordillo, we have four decent pass rushers. If you're rushing with those four, a quarterback should feel a little uneasy with that pressure."
However, the Eagle staff expects UC to protect their young signal-caller by steering their offense toward power running and occasional play-action passing.
Genyk used his team's 37-34 win over Buffalo in last year's opener as a comparison. The Eagles passed for just 91 yards in that win.
"Just like we were with Matt Bohnet last year, they are most likely going to put (Grutza) in positions to be successful. They're going to try to get him some success in the first quarter so that he can get in the flow of the game."
Injury Report: All of the players listed on EMU's two-deep are expected to be at full strength Thursday night. Genyk credited the team's off-season and fall conditioning progams for the clean bill of health.
"We're very healthy," he said. "There was tremendous intensity in the second week of (fall) camp, and then we pulled back a little bit. We need to bring that intensity to the field, but, from a health perspective, we're in great shape."