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Happy New Year’s from The Ypsilanti Eleven to you. In lieu of something really cool and football-specific to gleam over in a year-end post, I’ve got something more self-indulgent to present.
The 2022 calendar year meant a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, this is probably the busiest year I’ve personally ever had. It’s at least the busiest year of my adult life. Three, big life changes of mine that reflect on this website: 1. I got married in March, 2. my wife and I moved back to Ypsilanti, and 3. I actively decided to put more energy into this newsletter than I had in the first couple of years of launching it.
Being back in Ypsilanti has allowed me to cover games and speak to the team directly more frequently and easier than when I lived an hour away. Sure, Zoom exists, but covering teams, at least for me, is better done in person than over an internet connection. This newsletter’s growth has been really great and readers like you are the reason for it.
This newsletter began in January 2020, but after everything changed with Covid, I took a year-long hiatus from writing on this site from November 2020 to November 2021. I got married in March and we had our honeymoon in June, then moved back to Ypsi in July. This is probably the best jumping-off point to get to where the newsletter is now.
By the end of 2021, this newsletter had just 80 subscribers, all unpaid. I didn’t have a paywall until November. Now, Y11 has 182 subscribers, 25 paid (not including comps). For the work that I’ve put into legitimizing this newsletter, I”m incredibly proud of those numbers and thankful for everybody that’s been supportive of this site’s future. (Moreover, I’m still giddy that you all sent me to the Potato Bowl.) I’m glad to have written as much as I have in the past year. As an overly self-critical person with a bunch of mental notes about what could’ve been different or better for this newsletter over the last year, I’m excited to work on everything I want to see out of myself in 2023.
The 2022 calendar year was much busier for the newsletter and it’s been great, but it’s obviously not the biggest success story either. I finally launched Y11 Audio during the summer. I wanted to regularly record, but I failed at planning ahead in my time management. Planning ahead and editing afterwards do take some time to do, and I really wanted to prioritize my writing last season. So, after Week 2, I decided to hit the brakes early on the project. Again, looking ahead, I want to do something with the podcast this calendar year, but that’s all I’m at liberty to say on the matter.
(Subscribe to MAC Football Pod.)
As a quick (and delayed) year-end post to celebrate the year that was, let’s look back at some of the stories I wrote in 2022 and reflect on the year that was.
Transfer LB Chase Kline: "I want to win. No matter what." (1/6)
During the early signing period, Eastern Michigan added a select handful of high school recruits, and even fewer transfers through the transfer portal to start to fill out its 2022 signing class. Of the seven new footballers to sign their letters of intent to join the Eagles last month, Chase Kline expects to be a leader from Day 1.
“I just want to come in and show them how hard I can work, show them all I’m willing to do for this program and earn their respect,” Kline told The Ypsilanti Eleven. “I’ll push them and push them to get the best that we can. Just looking for a very successful 2022 season.”
… “I’ve always thought they were a blue-collar, tough school. Coach [Chris] Creighton’s a fantastic coach, along with (associate head coach, defensive coordinator, and linebackers coach) Neal Neathery. I think they’ve really got something good going on,” said Kline. “That’s what I thought of them coming out of high school: I thought they were honest, good men. And nothing’s changed. If anything it’s just been re-affirmed over this process.
Will the Ben Bryant Playbook be more of a thing? (1/9)
After Bryant’s cameo season with the Eagles, he’s headed back to Cincinnati where he was formerly the backup quarterback to Desmond Ridder, who just led the Bearcats to a historic College Football Playoff appearance and now off to the NFL. Bryant took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the extra year of eligibility gave him. Thanks, covid! Bryant clearly had an ability to play start and play football, but he wasn’t going to start over a returning Ridder in 2021, so he hit the transfer portal and tried his shot at EMU, where his father went to college at.
Ultimately, the gamble worked out as well as one could imagine for the QB to this point. Instead of riding the bench, Bryant competed for and eventually won the starting job over Hutchinson at Eastern. Bryant finished the season as the Mid-American Conference’s leader in passing percentage (68.4%, 279/408), 2nd in pass attempts (408), and 3rd in pass yards (3,121 total, 240.1 avg.). He didn’t receive any All-MAC accolades, but he certainly leaves with a grad school experience.
Now Bryant gets to go back to Cincinnati where his current competition on the roster are younger guys that have a lot of talent. Bryant didn’t get to enjoy the historic run to the Playoff like he probably would’ve loved to enjoy with his friends, but that’s the cost of the parlay he played on Jan 7, 2021 when he made the decision to come to Eastern. His announcement to re-join Cincinnati came exactly one year later: Jan. 7, 2022. Whether he spent the past year in Ypsi or in Cincy, he still would have to prove himself to coach Luke Fickell and staff that he’s the guy to lead the Bearcats in 2022. He knew the upcoming spring practices would be coming up, and now he brings more experience to his team having actually led Eastern’s offense in 2021.
Cincinnati’s situation is unique in its own right, but how many more boomerang transfers could we see?
Cold and rain couldn't ruin Eastern Michigan's spirits during 2022 spring game (4/16)
By season’s end last year, EMU felt good about this position with a strong QB1 in Ben Bryant and an experienced, sometimes exciting QB2 in Preston Hutchinson. Now, Bryant’s transferred back to Cincinnati and Hutchinson is at UT-Chattanooga. No QBs joined the team in the early signing period, which meant Austin Smith was the most experienced QB on the team, and that’s only because he came in for a drive during the 59-21 blowout over Texas State last season.
So, EMU went portal shopping. In January, Taylor Powell announced his decision to transfer from Troy (started out at Missouri) to EMU as a graduate student. Powell’s got a decent deep arm, but he’ll find most of his success through his accuracy.
“I think that the relationship with the quarterbacks and receivers have been so good,” receiver Tanner Knue said following the spring game. “Taylor coming in, he was really outgoing and made it his objective to build a relationship with us, and we've all had a relationship with all the quarterbacks that have been here, so it was just a seamless transition. I think the offseason work of throwing extra and doing extra (will pay) off.”
RIP Fred Reed, 54 (5/9)
I didn’t know Reed personally, but by all signs he was one of the more respected coaches in the sport with a record of being a great role model for the players.
Looking at some of the tweets of those who actually did know Reed, people said he’d challenge his players to be their best versions of themselves, was an incredible mentor, truly cared about each individual player on the roster, genuine, authentic, and generally left a huge impact on everybody he came across in the sport. And when you’ve been coaching for 27 years, there are at least some thousands of players, coaches, and staff that’ve benefited from getting to know him.
'That's Kind of Big': 2023 DE Messiah Blair is EMU's Highest-Rated Recruit Ever (7/11)
If you saw the news in real-time on Saturday, you might’ve had the same reaction Blair had. Minutes after he tweeted out his commitment, recruiting analyst Allen Trieu pointed out that Blair would be EMU’s highest-rated recruit ever.
“That actually caught me off-guard.” Blair told me. “I even told coach Creighton and coach Needham, like, 'I'm the highest-rated recruit to go to Eastern? That's kind of big.'“
Blair, a Detroit native, currently suits up for one of the top high school programs in the state. Martin Luther King High School is talked about more in the national recruiting realm because of its 5-star quarterback Dante Moore, who recently committed to Oregon. Two of Blair’s fellow senior teammates, OL Johnathan Slack and DE Kenneth Merrieweather are headed to Big Ten schools in Michigan State and Iowa, respectively, and CB Jahmeel Croft is uncommitted but currently holds 22 offers, EMU included.
For EMU, getting some quality wins on the recruiting trail in Detroit is important, so getting news like this is huge for both the program and Blair.
2023 WR Makhail Wood Could Be an Immediate Answer (7/23)
Wood first met Eastern Michigan via Shaq Vann, the former Creighton recruit and EMU running back who now coaches for the team, at a football camp in 2021.
Throughout Wood’s recruiting process, he’s been in conversations with EMU wide receiver coach Dyrell Roberts and head coach Chris Creighton about the plan for what it’d look like if Wood went to Eastern.
“Coach Roberts said if I come in on my freshman year and I perform like I need to perform, then I won’t even need to redshirt this year,” Wood told me in a phone interview. “So that was very interesting for him to tell me.”
Program-Setting Moment: Eastern Michigan Has MAC's Top-Ranked Recruiting Class (8/2)
When EMU entered the weekend, it had a recruiting team score of 92.35. At the time, EMU was third in the MAC’s recruiting standings. Brown’s commitment on Saturday boosted EMU up to second in the MAC standings at 102.06, then it got up to 109.87 after White’s announcement yesterday.
This is a signing class that already features Eastern’s highest-ranked recruit of the program’s history, DE Messiah Blair from Detroit (Martin Luther King HS), whose composite score is currently at 0.8693. EMU’s previous Best Recruit In School History would be none other than QB Brogan Roback (0.8662, class of 2013).
Blair is also the second-highest ranked commit to any MAC school for this cycle.
While this headline and update is just a snapshot in time, it’s also Aug. 2 and the high school recruiting circuit has really wound down after the busy summer. This is actually a decent time to start forecasting how teams could finish pen meets paper for these kids during the December signing period. Every school still has work to do and a transfer portal to work out, but the high school circuit for this year is largely completed.
Game coverage, recaps from the 2022 season
There Just Isn't an Easy Path Toward Detroit
Note: I missed the Toledo game due to a wedding.
History Made: Eastern Wins First Bowl Game in 35 Years (12/20)
It finally happened.
After 35 years of yearning for another victory formation made in December.
Eastern Michigan (9-4 overall, 5-3 MAC), of all teams, won a bowl game. It wasn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill bowl game. They won the bowl game.
It was 35 years ago when this program won its one and only bowl game against San Jose State in the Cal Bowl. The score: 30-27.
Now? On the famous blue turf in Boise, Idaho, EMU celebrates another bowl win over the Spartans of the Bay Area (7-5, 5-3 MW). This time: 41-27.
Photos by Tariq Speights
Tariq Speights, a linebacker (now graduated) with EMU football, went behind the camera to take pictures for this newsletter at Little Caesar’s Arena and at the George Gervin Center. Speights captured Emoni Bates’ debut game with EMU men’s basketball against Michigan in Detroit, then later hit up the team’s home game against FAU in December.
In Photos: Emoni Bates' Return, EMU Men's Hoops vs. Michigan at Little Caesars Arena (11/12)
In Photos: EMU Men's Hoops vs. FAU (12/7)
After EMU's 4th Power 5 Victory, Chris Creighton Targets 'Sustained Success' (9/21)
One of the most joyous occasions in all of college sports — the big upset — was something Eastern Michigan never had the chance to celebrate until very-recent memory. From the program’s formation in 1891 through 2016 Eastern Michigan lost all 58 attempts at beating a Power 5 school; there wasn’t a single major upset to speak of.
Since 2017, EMU’s gone 4-4 in those contests.
Eastern’s first-ever Power 5 victory was a 16-13 final score at Rutgers in 2017. EMU followed that up with two more wins over Big Ten schools via walk-off field goals, Purdue in 2018 (20-19) and Illinois in 2019 (34-31).
Last week at Arizona State, EMU beat the Sun Devils by nine (30-21) when Vegas oddsmakers said it came into the game as 20-point underdogs, making it the most-convincing Power 5 upset to date.
“We're capable of playing really good football, but I would also say it has exposed our lack of maturation of a program and we've not been able to handle, you know, some success after some of those monumental wins,” Chris Creighton said in Monday’s press conference. “That's where we're at as a program, or that's where we've been, and that's the challenge we find ourselves in here right now.”
Jaylon Jackson is Running With Dri Archer (10/12)
Jackson has already become one of the most dangerous return specialists, not just in the nation, but in Mid-American Conference history too. Since 2000, only *six MAC players have finished their seasons with an average of at least 30 yards per return: Dri Archer in 2012 for Kent State (36.9) and Eric Page for Toledo in 2010 (31.1).
Archer captured the MAC record for return yard average in 2012 when he was in his fourth year with Kent State. Archer went on to win MAC Special Teams Player of the Year honors that season and helped Kent State reach its first-ever MAC Championship game in Detroit, 40 years after the Flashes last (the only time it) won the league title.
(*Well, seven players technically. In the three games during Ohio’s pandemic-shortened year of 2020, DeMontre Tuggle technically recorded the highest average at 45.0, but that came on 4 returns for 180 yards in, again, just three games.)
MAC Players with kick return average of 30+ yards since 2000
2012, Dri Archer (Kent State): 16 ret., 591 yards (36.9 avg.), 3 TD
2022, Jaylon Jackson (EMU): 9 ret., 323 yards (35.9 avg.), 1 TD
2002, Tyron Walker (WMU): 13 ret., 426 yards (32.8 avg.), 2 TD
2008, Travis Shelton (Temple): 23 ret., 720 yards (31.3 avg.), 1 TD
2007 Bryan Williams (Akron): 21 ret., 670 yards (31.9 avg.), 1 TD
2010, Eric Page (Toledo): 28 ret., 871 yards (31.1 avg.), 3 TD
2006, David Harvey (Akron): 17 ret., 510 yards (30.0 avg.)
Well, Now What? (10/17)
By the end of Saturday’s game, the scoreboard read this: Northern Illinois 39, Eastern Michigan 10.
Translation: It’s time for some hard, behind-the-scenes conversations at EMU.
Chris Creighton said he was out-coached in the game by Thomas Hammock of Northern Illinois immediately after the game. Maybe Creighton was out-coached all week, he conceded.
“I didn’t have answers,” Creighton said. “Couldn’t move the ball. Couldn’t score points, couldn’t get into any rhythm offensively.”
This is the second time this season that Creighton has lost a home MAC game by 29 points to a coach that’s spent less time in the league than he has. This is Hammock’s fourth season, and Maurice Linguist is in his second year with Buffalo.
The Intangibles: Jose Ramirez (11/25)
Who wouldn’t want to be Ramirez’s teammate?
Ramirez, one of the four team captains, usually goes out to midfield for the pregame coin toss alongside Taylor Powell, Chase Kline, and Brian Dooley. Over the last couple of games, he’s given the honor out to one of his teammates instead.
Last week at Kent State, Ramirez held back by the sidelines and let senior safety Brandon Benson have the pregame honors.
Today against Central Michigan, first-year punter Mitchell Tomasek got to be the one to shake hands at midfield in place of Ramirez.
“I go up there every week,” Ramirez said. “Sure it’s fun to go up there to be the captain and lead this team, but I just feel like (those) guys earned the respect of our team and earned the respect of our coaches to be called the captain of that week.
“I wish I would’ve done that earlier, but later in the season I just started realizing other guys would probably feel good going up there. It’s a cool feeling going up there for the coin toss... They deserved it.”
Mathew Sexton Wants to be Great (11/29)
You returned a handful of kicks in NFL preseason action. For some guys that would be enough for them. What’s the goal that you’re chasing?
I really just want to make a difference. I just want to be great. It’s tough, I know I have so much more to give than what people saw in Pittsburgh as an athlete and as a person. I still have a lot of love for people in Pittsburgh, they showed a lot of love out there. I freaking love doing the punt return stuff, I love doing the kick return stuff. But I think I bring more to the table and that’s kind of my goal, not only to myself but prove to everyone else that I can.
I’ve been coming from a small school being the only person that’s been to the NFL from my high school. There’s always doubts and there’s always that pressure, but I just want to prove it to myself and to people who might think that they can’t make it, then they see me and they get some hope and get a little bit of light. Just to prove it to myself just so I know I can, and to get it done in awesome fashion.
As a small-town kid who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, you weren’t offered as many opportunities as the kids who grew up as blue-chip recruits. What’s it been like opening doors yourself?
That’s something I was born with. When Covid was happening, people forget that I did my pro day at Eastern, then I had a whole year of absolutely nothing. Then I did another pro day at Michigan State, and then Pittsburgh picked me up. You want to talk about one of the longest years of my life, dude? I was driving an hour and 15 minutes, one-way, to go work out every single day. But I could feel it in my body, in my bones, that I was meant to do this.
People forget that I really worked hard for this and I still bust my ass for this stuff. Just because I’m fast people think it kind of came easy, but that couldn’t be the furthest thing from the truth.
Three Points: How Short EMU Came from First MAC Title Game Berth (12/3)
Last year’s championship was just last year’s championship, there was no need to keep kissing their 10-month old rings. Sure it’s a more accomplished football program in the league, but NIU did not look good in 2022.
NIU finished last in the division this year, 2-6 in MAC play. It’s 3-9 overall, 6 wins fewer than last year and no bowl game to look forward to.
Just last week it lost 44-12 to Akron — a possibility that I wouldn’t have even imagined until I watched it happen. NIU had some hard-fought games in September against SEC competition, but it was still obvious that the team had a fast, hard decline.
The EMU game, though, would make you second-guess that thought in mid-October.
National Signing Day: EMU's Best Class Ever (12/21)
From one historic moment to the next. It hasn’t even been a full day since Eastern Michigan won a bowl game to reach nine wins for the first time since 1987 and the focus is already shifted to the future.
Tuesday featured a historic bowl win for the program, and now, Wednesday, 18 recruits from the high school and junior college ranks put pen to paper to wear green and white (and gray) for their football futures.
Of the 18 players signed today, three came from the junior college ranks — a quarterback, a defensive tackle, and a cornerback — while the rest signed with EMU as seniors in high school. Of the high school signees: three are from Michigan — including the highest-ranked in-state signee in program history — four are from Georgia, two are from Indiana, and one from each state of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Florida. Eight signees are pledged to play for EMU’s offense while the remaining 10 will be on the defensive side of things.
Going by 247sports.com’s composite scoring system, EMU’s signing class is the best that it’s ever been with a #3 rank in the Mid-American Conference and #89 nationally. It’s previous best mark came in in 2020 when EMU signed the #101 ranked class in the nation. Even though it was a fleeting moment, it’s worth nothing that at one point over the summer, EMU’s 2023 class was ranked as the MAC’s best, which was a first for the program.
One last thank you for every reader’s support through 2022. Now, it’s time to get to work for what 2023 has in store for the EMU football community.
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I've probably said this before, but the fact that we have sustainable independent media covering this team now is a sign that Eastern is for real. It's nice to have actual journalism in this age of social media rumors, scripted content produced by the very institutions are the subject of it, and a rapidly shifting media environment. I hope that this site continues to grow and stays for many seasons to come. I also hope that you've inspired people interested in bringing independent coverage to other sports here at EMU (I wish there was a basketball version of Y11 so much). Keep up the good work in 2023, Go Green.