July 20, 2006
The Eastern Washington University football team is out to prove there is life after the memorable "Meyer-Kimble-Vijil-McIntyre-Sanders-Cwik-Trufant-Hendrix" era.
On paper, the Eagles look good with 41 returning letter winners and just 21 lost, but replacing the incredible contributions of eight amazingly productive seniors will prove to be difficult indeed. Eastern loses the Walter Payton Award winner and Big Sky Offensive MVP (quarterback Erik Meyer), the Big Sky Defensive MVP (middle linebacker Joey Cwik), four wide receivers and a pair of cornerbacks.
"The players already in the program really need to step up," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff, whose rebuilding effort is a daunting one. "We have areas with voids, and now it's up to the players in those positions to step up. They need to make plays and carry their load and their responsibility. It's up to them."
But the contributions of those eight seniors won't be easily replaced. They helped lead Eastern to back-to-back Big Sky Conference co-championships and NCAA Division I-AA Playoff berths both seasons.
Meyer, with a completion percentage of .657, 10,261 yards, 84 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions in 42 career games, broke the I-AA record for efficiency rating (166.5) by quarterbacks with at least career 400 completions. Cwik never missed a game in his four years as an Eagle and finished with 331 tackles in his 47-game career (40 as a starter) to rank fourth in school history.
Receivers Eric Kimble, Raul Vijil, Craig McIntyre and Richmond Sanders finished their careers with a combined 156 games of experience (74 starts), with totals of 503 catches for 7,858 yards and 74 touchdowns. Cornerbacks Isaiah Trufant and Jesse Hendrix combined for 16 interceptions, 65 passes broken up and 287 total tackles in their Eagle careers. That duo had a combined 85 games of experience, including 69 career starts.
But 41 returning letter winners - including six starters on each side of the ball plus the team's kicker and punter - has Wulff excited about the possibilities. Only 21 letter winners were lost.
"There is no question that this is a team that has the potential to surprise some people and do some good things down the road," he said. "But we have a lot of work in front of us. We're going to take it step by step."
Despite the loss of talent in key skill positions, Wulff is hoping the return of experienced offensive and defensive linemen will help make up for it. The Eagles gave up 53 sacks and averaged just 136.2 rushing yards last season, but a year earlier a more experienced unit allowed only 36 sacks and averaged 184.4 rushing yards.
Defensively, Eastern had only 18 sacks and allowed 160.2 rushing yards per game. But again, an experienced unit in 2004 had eight more sacks and allowed only 137.0 rushing yards per game.
"If you're strong in your offensive and defensive lines, then you always have the chance to compete," explained Wulff. "With that being said, we have a chance. We have enough experienced and talented players back, and we have some players in key roles that will have to be playmakers for us."
Eastern's accomplishments and victories in 2005 will be remembered most because of a rash of injuries the team had to overcome. A total of 20 Eagles - including 15 who started at various times during the season - missed games and practice time because of injuries suffered since the start of the season. In all, the injuries caused those 20 players to miss 90 total games and 55 total starts.
"I guess the positive part of having a lot of injuries is the opportunity for youth to be able to play and get some experience," he said. "That should help us out. The key now is for this football team to mature a little bit. Our offensive and defensive lines were so youthful last year that we got nicked up. If you have to play young linemen, so many times they don't have the mental capability or are not physically strong enough to handle an 11- or 12-game season. We're hoping this year, with added strength and size, that we can avoid that immaturity."
Regardless, Eastern continues to have lofty expectations as they attempt to continue a streak of seven-straight winning seasons, win a third-straight league title and make a third-straight appearance in the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs. Eastern, which has now made five total appearances in the playoffs, had never made back-to-back playoff appearances nor won back-to-back titles in 22 seasons as a member of I-AA (19 as a member of the Big Sky).
Sometimes, the obvious is obvious.
Not including incoming freshmen, Eastern will look to a pair of quarterbacks to replace Meyer, and a young yet talented group of receivers ready to replace the four standout receivers the Eagles lost to graduation.
"Obviously, there's the obvious," said Wulff. "We have some openings at the receiver positions and the quarterback spot, so we'll see what emerges there. There are a lot of players who will have the opportunity to fill those roles."
Junior Chris Peerboom has the inside edge for the quarterback position based on experience in the program, but didn't get much of an opportunity to play behind Meyer the past two seasons. He played in only three games in 2005 after suffering a hand injury in the first game of the season that kept him from practicing for nearly two months. He completed just 2-of-13 passes for 22 yards and four interceptions, but the year before was 9-of-21 for 66 yards and two interceptions in seven games.
"He's the frontrunner based on experience, being in the program and knowing our offense," said Wulff. "He has done some very good things in practice, but he has yet to be able to do those things in a ballgame."
Matt Nichols will push for the starting spot after redshirting as a freshman last season. He is from Cottonwood, Calif., and graduated in 2005 from West Valley High School.
"Our quarterback situation is about taking care of the football, getting first downs and scoring points," explained Wulff. "It's an easy thing to say but not an easy thing to do. It's a generic way to put it, but we have to determine who is going to move the chains the best, who is going to score points and who is going to take care of the football. It's his job to take charge and run the huddle. It's on him to do that, but at the same time, he has 10 other guys who need to do their part. When everyone is doing their part, you are going to have success."
Eastern's receiving corp includes junior Tyler Coleman, who caught 22 passes for 330 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore, and caught five passes for 48 yards and a score as a freshman in 2004. Charles Searcy, a Eagle cornerback in 2005, will move to offense after playing both positions in junior college.
"Tyler Coleman has a good amount of experience, and we feel good about him," said Wulff. "Charles Searcy was also a receiver in junior college, and receiver is probably a more natural position for him. He gives us a veteran threat with some speed. It's a position he's more comfortable with."
A trio of 2005 redshirts should also challenge for positions. Aaron Boyce is a big target at 6-foot-2 and earned EWU Offensive Scout Team Player of the Week honors twice in 2005. Tony Davis was the Ofensive Scout Team Player of the Year, and Brynsen Brown also figures to get an opportunity to play.
"We are also excited about the potential of Aaron Boyce and Tony Davis, a pair of redshirts who have the potential to be fine players," explained Wulff. "They still have a lot of work in front of them and a lot to prove. They have a challenge because of their youth and understanding the demand of what is going to be put on them every day in practice."
Eastern also has talent at tight end that should help from both a pass receiving and blocking standpoint. Senior Tim Calhoun returns after earning second team All-Big Sky honors in 2005 and honorable mention as a true freshman in 2002. The two seasons in between were miserable as he was plagued by injuries. He caught 15 passes for 213 yards last year and had 31 catches for 378 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.
Junior Tom McAndrews is also back with 18 games of experience under his belt. He has caught six passes for 68 yards in his career, and in spring 2005 he was selected as the team's most improved player on offense. Freshman redshirts Chad Kurz and Nathan Overbay should also see plenty of action. Overbay, whose uncle Lyle Overbay now plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, caught 81 passes for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in high school in 2004.
The Eagles need their offensive line to be the strength of the team in 2006. The Eagles return a pair of All-Americans in juniors Matt Alfred (6-3, 300) and Rocky Hanni (6-5, 290), and two others who have significant starting experience. Those four players all started at least six games in 2005, and have a combined 67 starts between them. And all four of them were just second-year players in the Eagle program last season and return in 2006 as juniors.
Plus, All-Big Sky second team defensive lineman Harrison Nikolao will move full-time to the offensive line after seeing some action there as a sophomore in 2004. He has started 24 games on defense for EWU.
"Our offensive line has to get better," said Wulff. "There are some returning players there and some depth, but we'll see who emerges and see if we really make the progress we need to make in the offensive line. Throughout the year we weren't consistent enough and it wasn't up to the level we expect in our program at that position, including the tight end position."
Alfred, a sturdy 6-3, 300 pounds, was a first team All-America and All-Big Sky pick in 2005 after helping the Eagles rank fourth nationally in total offense with an average of 477.8 yards per game. He has started as either a guard or tackle in Eastern's last 22 games the past two seasons.
The group also includes Rocky Hanni, who as a freshman in 2004 was the first-ever offensive lineman to win Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors. The 6-5, 290-pound Hanni also earned All-America honors that season and has started all 23 games as an Eagle. He moved from tackle to guard as a sophomore, but is expected to return to tackle in 2006.
The bottom line is finding a more productive offensive line, and one that can avoid allowing 53 sacks as it did in 12 games last season.
"We were very blessed to have a player like Erik who could escape a lot of pressure," said Wulff. "You aren't always going to have that. It comes back to our offensive line and running the football. We have to run the ball better than we have, and that will help our offensive line in our pass protection too. We have to get back to some of that."
Enter Nikolao, a physical presence at 6-2, 295 pounds. He has had 80 tackles with 7 1/2 sacks and a pair of pass deflections in his 36-game career thus far, but was able to make the move - probably to a guard position - because of depth along the EWU defensive line.
"It puts him in a more natural position," said Wulff. "His best chance to be a great football player is on the offensive side of the ball. Right now that might help our offense with the importance of running the football and the importance of solidifying our offensive line. He gives us some leadership and character there."
The biggest reason the Eagles hope for improved production at offensive line is to take advantage of a quartet of experienced running backs - including a pair who burst onto the scene in 2005. Senior Ryan Cole, who transferred last year from Oregon State, earned second team All-Big Sky honors after rushing for 879 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Dale Morris added 310 yards and a touchdown in nine games in his Eagle debut.
Also back are a pair of veterans in juniors Toke Kefu and Dezmon Cole. Kefu, who still has a redshirt year to use, rushed for 345 yards and four touchdowns in 2004 and added 154 yards last season. Dezmon Cole had 56 as a freshman in 2003, then had 311 and three touchdowns as a sophomore before redshirting in 2005.
Adding depth at running back is A.J. Jimmerson, who played sparingly as a defensive back in 2005.
"I see great competition at running back," said Wulff. "We have four experienced players returning, and A.J. Jimmerson is in the mix too. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds."
A simple fundamental might be the key to the season for Eastern, which was respectable in allowing 363 yards and 23.4 points per game. But the Eagles gave up points and yards by the bunches in their four shootout losses against I-AA competition.
They lost those four games by a combined 17 points, including road losses at Northern Iowa (41-38), Cal Poly (40-35) and Idaho State (34-30). Eastern also suffered a 28-23 loss at home to Weber Sate on Oct. 22, and a 35-24 loss at I-A San Jose State to open the year.
"Improving our tackling is the biggest thing we need to do," said Wulff. "I don't know if it's anything about X's and O's as much as it was missed tackles in a couple of games that really cost us. Those are just fundamentals - there's nothing special. We just need to be more fundamentally sound on defense, particularly tackling."
Overall, Eastern's defense has plenty of experience returning, including eight returning letter winners on the defensive line, four at linebacker and eight in the secondary. The lone returning All-Big Sky Conference players are safety Bryan Jarrett (first team), Brandon Keeler (second team), rover Nick Denbeigh (honorable mention) and linebacker David Eneberg (honorable mention). Harrison Nikolao earned second team honors, but has moved to the offensive line.
"Our defensive line play is going to be awfully critical for us," said Wulff of the defensive keys. "We need some consistency and get our players to play well. In our secondary, our safety position has to perform better."
Jarrett finished his first season as an Eagle with 59 tackles, an interception and two passes broken up. Keeler, a first team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore, had 62 tackles with an interception and two passes broken up.
In addition, Denbeigh finished with 66 tackles, an interception and six passes broken up from his rover position. Backup safety Gregor Smith played just seven games due to a knee injury, and finished with 31 tackles, an interception and two passes broken up. As a freshman in 2004, Smith earned second team All-Big Sky honors on special teams.
"We liked the play of Bryan Jarrett in his first year playing for us and he had an outstanding year," said Wulff. "But we really didn't get the play we needed at the other positions. Nick Denbeigh had a solid year, but losing Gregor Smith for much of the year hurt us. Brandon Keeler underachieved last year. Those are all guys that are back that need to step up and have great years for us."
Other returning letterwinners in the secondary include DeNique Ford, who finished with 58 tackles, an interception and six passes broken up as a backup safety and cornerback. He and Ira Jarmon (15 tackles, two passes broken up) are the leading candidates to fill Eastern's vacant cornerback positions.
"Denique played a tremendous amount for us, but he needs to be better," said Wulff. "Ira Jarmon is a return player who played a little bit. That position needs to be solidified with those guys and a few others."
Anthony Dotson (seven tackles, one pass broken up) is the other returning letterwinner in the secondary. Also in the secondary is Adam Macomber, who lettered as a true freshman at running back after walking on in the fall.
Three freshman redshirts are expected to add depth in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions, and also provide help on special teams. They include Robert Pearson, Kyle Wilkins and Aaron Cartwright.
At linebacker, Eneberg finished with 60 tackles in his first full season as a starter. Also seeing action in 2005 were Marcus Walker (15 tackles, one interception) and Shea Emry (12 tackles). Both were special teams standouts as well, with Emry earning honorable mention All-Big Sky honors. Freshman redshirt Makai Borden will also make his debut as a backup linebacker and special teams player.
The departure of Nikolao leaves the interior defensive line in the hands of a quartet of returning letter winners. Keith Grennan (28 tackles, three sacks) and George Lane (eight tackles) are seniors, while Lance Witherspoon (14 tackles) and Gene Piffero (14 tackles) are sophomores.
"Lance and Gene are two young defensive tackles who have a chance to come in and be awfully good football players," said Wulff. "We wanted to get them into the rotation as sophomores because we really didn't want be in the situation where our top three defensive tackles were all seniors. When you try to build a program and consistency, you want to have that balance of classes by position. Those two players allow us to do that with the return of Keith Grennan and George Lane. We have a nice balance there for growth in our program."
At defensive end, returning letter winners include sophomore Jason Belford (eight tackles, two sacks), who played in only three 2005 games because of a leg injury. As a result, Greg Peach (20 tackles, one sack) saw action in 12 games as a true freshman, including five as a starter.
Back are kicker Sheldon Weddle and punter Ryan Donckers. As juniors, Weddle made 11-of-17 field goals and 46-of-47 extra points, and Donckers had a 39.0 average in 38 punts. Senior Brett Bergstrom will handle kickoffs again and may challenge for the placekicking job.
Charles Searcy returns after averaging 23.8 yards per kickoff return. But lost is talented punt returner Eric Kimble, who finished his career with a school-record 13.4 average per return.
Eastern allowed opponents to average 23.4 yards per kickoff return and 15.1 yards per punt return. Comparatively, Eastern averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return and 9.8 per punt return.
"Special teams is a big concern," said Wulff. "We need to make sure we're aggressive and thorough on special teams and very solid there. We have a lot of young returning athletes who can fill that need. Special teams has to be a strength for us."