Behind Miller, Miller and Hill, Eagles hope to keep special teams special
Special teams were extremely special – and deep – in 2012 for the Eastern Washington University football team, and three of those key players return for the 2013 season.
Senior Kevin Miller, Eastern’s kickoff specialist two of the past three seasons, is back, as well as two-year starting punter and current school record holder Jake Miller. Kickoff returner Shaquille Hill had a sensational debut season for the Eagles, and was a member of the College Sports Journal Freshman All-America team and earned honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference honors in 2012.
Miller averaged 62.6 yards per kickoff in 2012, with 42 touchbacks in 86 kicks. He redshirted in 2011, but in 2010 he had averaged 64.2 yards in his 81 kicks (15 touchbacks) and as a freshman had a 63.0 average in 47 kickoffs (14 touchbacks). He has also made 3-of-4 field goals in spot duty for the Eagles, with a long boot of 48 yards.
Freshman recruit Roldan Alcobendas was going to join the team in the fall and provide competition, but a soccer injury sidelined him for the 2013 season. In his place, the Eagles added true freshman Christian Fanning.
Whoever handles the kicking duties will fill big shoes. Last season, senior Jimmy Pavel was selected to six all-America teams after making 17-of-19 field goals; the year before that, senior Mike Jarrett was an impressive 16-of-18.
“Kevin has kicked a lot of footballs, but hasn’t kicked a lot of field goals,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We want to create some competition, which is a reason we signed a kicker. At that position, and punter for that matter, you want daily competition with players going at it against each other and charting their kicks. So that will be exciting to see.”
The 43.8 career punting average of Miller currently ranks as a school record, placing him ahead of the 42.3 average of Jesse Nicassio (2002-03). In 2012, Miller had a school-record 74-yard punt versus Washington State (9/8/12), breaking the previous record of 71 set in 2006 by Ryan Donckers.
Miller’s average of 43.3 yards per punt in 2012 ranks third all-time in EWU history, just behind his No. 2 ranking with a 44.2 average in 2011 (the school record is 44.4). Miller was selected to the College Sports Journal All-Freshman All-America Team in 2011 and also earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades.
“Jake is a returning two-year starter at punter, but he also wants to keep working to become more consistent,” said Baldwin. “He has already shown he can punt at an All-America level, now he wants to show he can do it every snap.”
Hill, who had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against North Dakota (10/6/12), finished ranked 17th in FCS with an average of 26.8 yards per kickoff return. On EWU’s single season leaders lists, he finished the 2012 season ranked in the top 10 in kickoff returns (third, 34), kickoff return yards (second, 912) and kickoff return average (10th, 26.8).
Hill would have had another TD in the FCS Playoffs against Illinois State (12/8/12), but the video replay official determined he dropped the ball a yard shy of the end zone and it became a non-scoring 93-yard return. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference honors.
As a team, Eastern was 14th in FCS with a 23.5 average, as Cory Mitchell added a non-scoring 67-yard return in the Illinois State (12/8/12) game. Senior Ashton Clark is back after returning 19 punts for a 5.2 average in 2012.
“Shaq was dynamic and Cory has done a good job when he’s returned kicks,” said Baldwin. “And Ashton Clark has been very consistent as a punt returner. But we need other players to add to our group of returners, and there are a couple of young players we think can add to that return unit. We’re excited and we want to make sure we feel good about the players we have there.”
Eastern will have to replace its long snapper from the past three years – Jake Potter. Candidates to replace him include 2012 non-lettering squad members Trevor Moles and Terry Jackson II, plus a junior college transfer who will arrive in the fall, Cory Alcantar.
“There will be great competition from a long-snapping standpoint, and that will be a point of emphasis until our first game,” Baldwin added.