August 18, 2011

In Search of a Travel Squad, Eagles Scrimmage Saturday

Eastern has loads of depth, and that makes deciding position battles and a travel squad that much harder for EWU’s coaching staff

The depth is great to see, but the position battles are making it difficult on the Eastern Washington University football coaching staff.

With players competing for spots on the travel squad, as well as for starting positions and eventually playing time, the Eagles will have their first scrimmage of preseason camp on Saturday (Aug. 20) at 3:30 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The scrimmage is free and open to the public.

Eastern started practices on Aug. 10, and head coach Beau Baldwin has been pleased with the progress. With 50 total letterwinners returning for the NCAA Division I champions, he has already seen lots of competition for starting positions and spots on Eastern’s travel roster.

 “Whenever you get into live situations you see a little bit more,” said Baldwin, whose team opens the season at Washington of the Pac-12 Conference on Sept. 3. “Saturday’s scrimmage is going to be important for everybody and the growth of the team, but there are truly some spots where it is going to be very big in terms of setting our depth chart and travel squad.”

Determining a travel roster is made more important by the fact the Eagles open the season with three road games, and Saturday’s scrimmage may help or hinder the players on the bubble.

 “Figuring out our travel squad is a challenge right now because of the depth we’ve created, and that’s a testament to our players,” he continued. “There are a lot of players who are capable of playing some football, but the sad thing is that not everybody is going to be able to travel to every game. It’s going to be competitive.”

In particular, players are still competing for Eastern’s starting cornerback positions, and there are also battles for starting spots along the defensive line, linebacker and safety, as well as at punter.

Eastern’s starters are more solidified on offense. However, the Eagles are keeping a keen eye on the running back position, where EWU must replace two-time All-American and 1,000-yard rusher Taiwan Jones. The Eagles will fill that spot by committee, featuring sophomore Mario Brown, senior Darriell Beaumonte and Washington transfer Demitrius Bronson. However, Baldwin has also been impressed by a pair of true freshmen – Jordan Talley from Portland, Ore., and Quincy Forte from Fairfield, Calif.

“I think our freshman class is very good top to bottom,” Baldwin said. “You trust your recruiting, but you never truly know until they get on campus. Specifically, Forte and Talley have come in and have not only showed some athleticism, but they are picking up the system and competing. They are definitely not ready as freshmen a week or two into practices, but you can always get an idea of which players need to redshirt and others who very well might play this year. You are always going to have some freshmen who fit into some roles, and those two players might be in that boat.”

 

Eagles aren’t resting on their laurels from last season . . .

Baldwin’s team is ranked No. 1 in several preseason polls – including The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Preseason Top 25 released earlier this week. But he was thankful his team hasn’t rested on its laurels from last season when the Eagles finished with an 11-game winning streak and beat Delaware 20-19 in the national title game.

“You can tell our players did a great job over the summer,” he praised. “That’s something they have to police themselves, but I’ve been very pleased with what they accomplished. We are at a level where we are playing more physical than we were last August at this time. You base a lot of things on where you were at this time last year and the year before. But there is always room for a ton of improvement.”

There is still some conditioning work to do in preseason camp, but Baldwin said the experienced Eagles are mentally way ahead.

“We are not yet in the shape we want to be in, but mentally we’ve been able to throw a lot at them,” he said. “We’ve been able to install a lot without having a lot of errors on the field. That has been pleasant and enjoyable as a coach. Usually you find yourself having to scale back because you are throwing too much at them.”

One player who has become even more comfortable in Eastern’s offense is senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. He transferred from Southern Methodist to EWU in spring 2010, and quickly won the starting job. He completed 59 percent of his passes to finish with 3,496 yards, a school-record 37 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions as a junior.

Although he was inconsistent at times and had five of his interceptions returned for touchdowns, Mitchell progressed to the point of being selected as the Most Outstanding Player in the national championship game and has earned preseason All-America accolades this season.

“He’s made tons of progress,” said Baldwin. “At this time last year he had been here only five or six months – that’s a very short time, especially at quarterback. Now, having played 15 games as a starter and coming back after a full off-season, he’s just in a different place. He’s done a great job and he’s worked at that too – it didn’t just happen. He worked at it in the winter, spring and summer. His goal is to have a much better season than he did last year.”

 

Turnover margin and takeaway numbers great, but Eagles need to give the ball away less . . .

Baldwin likes what he sees, but he knows his team has a long ways to go to defend its title. And he has some clear areas where the team can improve.

The Eagles ranked first in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 2010 in interceptions (total of 26) and turnovers gained (47), and finished 17th nationally in turnover margin (.80 less turnovers per game than its opponents) after ranking sixth in 2009 (1.25 less). In the last two years, Eastern is 14-0 when it has fewer turnovers than its opponent, including an 8-0 record in 2010.

However, the Eagles also averaged more than two giveaways per game – 19 fumbles and 16 interceptions for a total of 35.

“Even though we won the national title, we lacked in some areas,” Baldwin explained. “One of them was our ball security. We ended with a really good turnover margin, but that was because we led the nation in interceptions and takeaways. But the giveaway part on offense and special teams is something we need to improve on.

“Third down on both sides of the ball wasn’t a problem that’s alarming,” he continued, “but we have to be much better this season. We tinkered with some things in the offseason and really worked on it to try to get ourselves to a higher level.”

“There are always things to improve,” he added. “We also want to keep increasing our tempo. And our overall strength is very good, but we can always keep improving on the shape they are in. I don’t base it so much on the first few practices, we base it more on things from last season we have to work on.”

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