Eagles hope late-season roll and improvement continues in 2009 with 15 starters and 38 total letter winners back
Last November, the wins finally caught up with the improvement the Eastern Washington University football team made during the 2008 season.
For what they accomplished in the final half of that year, the Eagles are hoping for a carryover effect for the 2009 season to improve upon last year's 6-5 finish that included a 5-3 record in the Big Sky Conference.
The Eagles return 38 letter winners from last year's team that ended the season with a three-game winning streak, including 17 back on offense and 21 returning on defense. A total of 15 starters are returning, featuring eight on offense and seven on defense.
To return to the FCS Playoffs this year, the Eagles will not only have to win more, but hope they eventually receive good news from the NCAA as well. Eastern appealed a postseason ban levied by the NCAA after a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07 was released in February. The NCAA investigated a series of secondary rule violations, which, taken in total, led to a major infractions case. The university originally self-reported the violations to the NCAA in February 2007.
Whether or not the appeal is denied, the Eagles are taking the approach that the postseason ban won't be a penalty unless Eastern takes care of business on the field.
"When the announcement was made initially, it was hard," explained Baldwin. "But it was amazing how resilient and how fast they came back from that. They said, ‘we don't control that so we're going to get after it and work hard.'"
"There's a little chip on their shoulder, but to me, it has taken nothing away from their work ethic. A lot of that comes from great leaders. We have some players in place - seniors especially - who have done a great job of leading everybody through it. It's not what we planned for or expected, but the schedule is ahead of us so let's battle that. All we control is how well we play each day. We are guaranteed 11 games and we're going to do everything we can to prepare for that between now and Sept. 5."
In all, Baldwin has 25 players returning with starting experience and a total of 281 starts between them. That list is led by a pair of seniors who were highly-honored in 2007 - quarterback Matt Nichols and wide receiver Aaron Boyce.
Nichols, who was Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP after throwing for a school-record 34 touchdowns in 2007, has started 33 games in his career. He has passed for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons after getting his feet wet as a freshman in 2006.
Boyce, an All-American in 2007, has started 32 games. He had 63 catches last season to give him a total of 183 in his career (second-most in school history).
In 2008, Boyce had to settle for second team All-Big Sky honors and Nichols earned honorable mention. A total of 12 Eastern players who earned All-Big Sky honors last year - including second team wide receiver Brynsen Brown - are back and provide a base of talent for the Eagles. Brown caught 50 passes and had four touchdowns a year ago.
Returning All-Big Sky honorable mention selections on offense included senior wide receiver Tony Davis, senior tight end Nathan Overbay and senior offensive tackle Chris Thomas. Returning honorable mentions on defense are senior linebacker Makai Borden, junior outside linebacker J.C. Sherritt and a pair of sophomore twins - strong safety Matt Johnson and outside linebacker Zach Johnson. Another All-Big Sky player returning is senior special teams standout Nicholas Ramos.
Another honorable mention pick not able to play this season is junior offensive tackle Brice Leahy. He injured his right leg (not football-related) and will have to redshirt the 2009 season.
Among the 19 letter winners lost were 18 seniors who combined for 232 starts in their careers. All but seven of those seniors were four-year letter winners, including three starting defensive linemen. One of those, All-America defensive end Greg Peach, won the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top player in FCS and was also the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
The offense has something to prove in 2009, and the leader of that effort is Nichols. He led Eastern to nine victories as a sophomore in 2007 when he passed for 3,744 yards and 34 touchdowns, and had another 392 yards on the ground. As a junior, his numbers (in two less games) slipped to 3,293 yards and 21 touchdowns passing, and 83 yards rushing.
"I've been extremely impressed with his approach to his senior season, especially with the unfortunate news of the postseason ban," said Baldwin. "One of the comments he's made is, ‘it's only a penalty if we make it a penalty. They could have slapped us with that last year and it wouldn't have mattered, right?' That's the right approach, and we have to earn the right for that to really be a penalty. He's going out there with the idea that we are going to make that a penalty if the appeal does not go our way."
Nichols will have a seasoned and experienced wide receiver unit returning, headlined by Boyce, Brown and Davis, who was Eastern's second-leading receiver a year ago with 53 catches and three scores. That trio has combined for 456 catches, 6,329 yards and 43 touchdowns in 98 games worth of experience (80 starts).
Other returning letter winners at wide receiver include Ramos and Ashton Gant. Ramos finished with eight catches for 88 yards, and Gant added three catches.
At tight end, Overbay returns after catching 28 passes for 364 yards and a pair of scores. Also back is junior Matt Martin, who added 11 catches for 118 yards.
The offensive line was young and inexperienced in 2008, and actually gave up fewer sacks (18) than it did the previous season (25). But the Eagles generated only 98.5 yards per game on the ground - nearly 70 less per game than the year before. It was the lowest average per game for the Eagles since 1987 when Eastern played the first of what is now 22 seasons as a member of the Big Sky Conference.
The line is led by a pair of honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference selections in senior Chris Thomas (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) and junior Brice Leahy (6-7, 295), although Leahy will have to redshirt in 2009 because of a non football-related injury. The other returning starter is senior Ryan Forney (6-3, 295), but Eastern also returns three other letter winners in Gabriel Jackson (6-4, 275), John Rice (6-7, 295) and Nikolai Myers (6-4, 275).
Eastern lost four senior running backs, but have three letter winners returning who are capable of filling that void. Tyler Hart was working his way up the depth chart and had 84 yards rushing with two touchdowns in 2008 before his season was ended with a broken scapula.
Also back - but in a different position - is speedster Taiwan Jones. He had 54 tackles and four passes broken up in seven games as a cornerback in 2008 after missing the first half of the season with a broken fibula.
But Jones was a talented running back in high school, and his skill with the ball led the coaches to give him some repetitions at wide receiver for the Eagles late last fall. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry as a senior in high school as he finished with a total of 1,466 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns to earn San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro honors.
Jones had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the Eagles last season against Northern Colorado, which further cemented the need to get the ball in his hands as a running back.
"Taiwan is obviously a dynamic athlete, and he wasn't able to show that a lot last year," explained Baldwin. "But we saw glimpses of it, like his kickoff return against Northern Colorado. He's a special player with the ball in his hands."
The third returning letter winner is tailback/fullback Darriell Beaumonte, who rushed for 25 yards and had three tackles on special teams.
"Tyler Hart is a tremendous running back, and had he not been injured, he could have had a very, very successful freshman season," Baldwin said of the running back corp. "We also have some younger players who can step-in. We're excited about that group as a whole, and Taiwan just adds an extra piece to that group that already had the potential of being very strong. They still have a lot to prove, but we're excited about the players that are there."
Like the offense, Eastern's defense was superb in the last half of the season under first-year defensive coordinator John Graham. After giving up 623 passing yards in a 47-36 loss at Portland State, the Eagles held five-straight opponents from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15 to 19 points or fewer. That was something that EWU has never done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984. The Eagles closed the year by limiting Weber State's high-powered offense to 26 points in a 33-26 Eagle victory.
"A lot of that was just finding out what our identity was on defense, understanding our philosophies and the players having a better idea of how they were being coached," said Baldwin. "It was night and day when comparing the first five games with the last six. We're excited about carrying that over."
The defensive line last season featured a trio of senior All-Big Sky performers, but the cupboard is certainly not bare for Eastern's defense.
Sophomore Renard Williams (6-2, 300) returns as a starter after finishing his debut season with 27 tackles, two sacks and seven total tackles for loss. Junior Tyler Jolley (6-3, 285) started four games and finished the year with 27 tackles with a sack and three passes batted down in nine games played.
Other returning letter winners include senior Jacob Kragt (6-3, 235), sophomore David Miles (6-4, 255) and senior Josh Jacobson (6-1, 280).
"We're excited about the group we have coming in," said Baldwin. "It's a lot like last year when we lost a lot of offensive linemen. We're excited to see the young defensive linemen and we're excited about some of the older players who haven't been able to play quite as much and now have that opportunity. We're excited to see how hard they work and how bad they want playing time. That group wants to come in and prove something."
Six starters return at linebacker and the secondary, including three linebackers who all earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2008. Zach Johnson leads the returning backers with 96 tackles and a team-leading seven passes broken up in 2008, with injuries sidelining Sherritt (64 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, one interception) and Borden (43 tackles) at various times during the season. Borden has started 20 games, with Eastern owning a 13-4 record the past two seasons with him in the starting lineup.
Other returning letter winners at linebacker include senior Kyle Wilkins, junior Jason Harris and sophomore Bobby Gentry. Wilkins finished the 2008 season with 46 tackles and a sack as he helped fill the void when injuries sidelined a trio of linebackers at the same time.
In the secondary, 24-game starting free safety Kevin Hatch returns for his senior season. He had 60 tackles for the season and an interception he returned 73 yards for a touchdown in Eastern's season-ending win over Big Sky champion Weber State.
Matt Johnson and senior cornerback Lonnie Hosley are the other two starters returning, with Johnson finishing his freshman season with 83 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Hosley started EWU's first five games and finished with 13 tackles and six passes broken up before a foot injury ended his season.
Six other letter winners return in the secondary, including seniors Brett Igbinoba and J.T. Leggin, who both moved to cornerback after playing as a wide receivers in 2008. The others are juniors John Roberts, Jesse Hoffman, Dante Calcote, Will Edge and Ethen Robinson. Edge, however, will not be able to play in the fall after suffering a dislocated left ankle and broken fibula in spring practices.
"Another position where some young players are going to have to step-up is defensive back," said Baldwin. "We don't have a large number of defensive backs, but it was a position we recruited heavily. We signed a number of defensive backs, so there could be young players in the lineup, but a lot of that depends on where the veteran players are. We're hoping that's a very competitive position during fall camp and that some players who haven't played much in prior years are able to step-up for us."
Eastern Washington University's punter, kicker and long snapper were all seniors in 2008, and replacing them will fall on the shoulders of non-lettering squad members and newcomers.
"Those positions are going to be extremely competitive," said head coach Beau Baldwin. "We have players on the roster right now who are competing for those positions, plus we also recruited to those areas. We'll evaluate it and determine what direction we need to go."
On Eastern's pre-season depth chart, sophomore squad member Mike Jarrett is listed as the starter, but could be pushed for the job by freshmen Austin Wallis and Kevin Miller. Wallis spent part of the spring competing for the kicking job at Syracuse.
Listed as the punter on the depth chart is true freshman Cameron Homan from Eatonville (Wash.) High School. The backup is listed as Cameron Zuber, a 2006 graduate of W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Wash. However, senior quarterback Matt Nichols has also punted, with a 37.6 average in seven career punts.
Junior Tyler Jolley is expected to handle long snapping chores, with freshman redshirt Jake Potter also listed on the depth chart.
Eastern does return some of the league's premier kick returners in Ramos, Jones and Davis. Ramos returned 17 kickoffs for a 23.2 average a year ago, and Jones averaged 36.3 in just seven returns with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus Northern Colorado. Davis had a 10.3 average in 19 punt returns in 2008, and in his career he has returned 28 punts for a 9.9 average and a touchdown.
Eastern's return and return coverage units will also have some special teams tradition to continue in 2009.
In the last 13 seasons, Eastern has returned 24 total kicks for touchdowns while allowing just 10. Eastern has not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in the last nine-plus years (485 total returns). In the past 13 seasons (675 returns from 1996-2008), EWU has allowed just two kickoff returns for touchdowns (both in 1999).
In that same 13-year time frame, the Eagles have returned 12 punts for scores while allowing eight.