Eagles feeling good about 2009

Eastern Washington University will open its 2009 college football season at home against Western Oregon on Saturday.

You can get a first read of the unedited version of the Eagles' season preview that will appear in Wednesday morning's S-R below.  And don't be shy about leaving your thoughts on how the Eags will fare.


It feels like the good – but not-so-old – days around the Eastern Washington University campus this fall.



That would seem to bode well for the Eagles’ football team, which opens its 2009 season hoping to eventually have its NCAA-levied ban on post-season play lifted and make another Football Championship Subdivision playoff run like it did in 2007.



Eastern finished 9-4 and made it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs that year, losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State 38-35.  But that impressive run helped bring about a coaching change that, despite all efforts to keep it seamless, simply wasn’t.



Beau Baldwin, who coordinated EWU’s high-powered offense in 2007 before taking over as the head coach at Central Washington for one season, was brought back to take the Eagles’ reins from Paul Wulff, who was hired away by Washington State University.



In announcing Baldwin’s return, Eastern’s athletic director Bill Chaves pointed to Baldwin’s familiarity with the program and his own desire to stay the course Wulff has charted. But despite everyone’s best intentions efforts, the Eagles took several different tacks en route to last fall’s disappointing 6-5 finish.



“Anytime there’s change, no matter how slight, it’s difficult for coaches and players, alike,” admitted Baldwin. “Even though there was some familiarity with some of us, a lot of us were in different roles than we had been in the past, and that caused some problems.



“But I can definitely sense a different feeling this year than I did last, just as far as having players and coaches on the same page.”



Baldwin isn’t the only one who has noticed that change.



“Just as a team, I feel like were more prepared both physically and mentally for the season,” said Matt Nichols, the Eagles’ record-setting senior quarterback and fourth-year starter. “It feels more like it did heading into our 2007 season when we went 9-4 and made it to the playoffs.



“Last year we had a new coaching staff and new systems on offense and defense, so things were a little hazy going into the season and no one seemed sure how things were going to work out.  But this year feels a lot more comfortable. Guys have worked a lot harder in the off season, and we just feel more together as a team.”



The Eagles will open the season at Woodward Field on Saturday afternoon with a 12:05 non-conference matchup against Western Oregon.  They will do so as a veteran team that is ranked in the top-20 of nearly every pre-season FCS poll and picked to finish third behind Montana and Weber State.



Just how much success Eastern has will depend, in great part, on whether Nichols can regain the consistency and productivity he displayed a sophomore in 2007, when he threw for 3,744 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns as the Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP.



Nichols’ numbers slipped last fall, but after dropping 20 pounds over the winter – and keeping them off – he seems poised for a big finish, regardless of how the school’s appeal of his post-season ban turns out.



Senior wide receivers Aaron Boyce, Tony Davis and Brynsen Brown and senior tight end Nathan Overbay will again be among Nichols’ favorite targets. But freshman Nicholas Edwards, a rangy 6-foot-3, 200-pound rookie out of Tacoma Foss High School looked great in fall camp and is listed ahead of Brown at the “X” receiver spot on the depth chart heading into Saturday home and season opener against Western Oregon.



The Eagles lost its top three running backs from last season, but Baldwin has few concerns at the position after moving Taiwan Jones, a speedy sophomore who was a backup cornerback as a freshman, into the starting position, where he should be capably backed up by sophomore Tyler Hart and redshirt freshman Chase King.



The offensive line is big and relatively experienced, but the loss of junior Brice Leahy to a off-season knee injury will hurt.



Defensively, the Eagles are battled tested in both the secondary, where senior free safety Kevin Hatch and senior corner Lonnie Hosley return, and at linebacker, where senior Makai Borden, who is currently sidelined with a minor hamstring injury, leads a veteran group of run-stoppers.



The defensive line remains suspect, however, considering three of last year’s full-time starters – including Buck Buchanan Award winner Greg Peach – are gone.  Still, Baldwin views the rebuilding process up front in terms of eagerness rather than concern.



“I know that’s one position people are going to have their eyes on because of the guys we lost,” Baldwin explained. “But I look at it as a fun and exciting challenge for those kids who are stepping in for them – just like it was for those kids who stepped in on our offensive line last fall.”



Junior nose tackle Tyler Jolley will anchor the d-line this fall, and senior weak-side end Jacob Kragt is also back. But the other tackle spot will be shared by sophomores David Miles and Renard Williams, with redshirt freshman Evan Cook manning the strong-side end position.



“Our defense had done a great job so far this fall of not giving up the big play,” Baldwin said. “There are still going to be plays made (against us), but it just doesn’t feel like there as much an opportunity for big plays as there was last year.



“And if you have to go the length of the field and make 10- or 12-play drives, it’s hard to score a lot of points.”



Eastern’s special teams remain a bit of a mixed back as Baldwin tries to replace placekicker Felipe Macias and punter Fritz Brayton. Those battles remain ongoing, with sophomore Mike Jarrett currently listed as the placekicker and junior Cameron Zuber as the punter.



The return teams should be solid however, thanks to an abundance of linebacker and safety types who were recruited to help in that area and the presence of Jones and Nicholas Ramos, who will return punts and kickoffs.



“I’m definitely ready for the season to start, and I know the players are, too,” Baldwin said. “I definitely feel better about the whole group that I did and this time last year.  That’s to take nothing away from last year’s group, but we (coaches) were obviously new to them



“And now that we’ve been with this group, for now going on our second year, you just feel more comfortable as far as them knowing what we expect and us knowing what to expect from them. So that part of it, I feel a lot better about.”







Five things that could prevent EWU from living up to its lofty preseason expectations



1.        The NCAA’s ban on postseason play, which is under appeal, but still capable of affecting motivation.



2.        The complete lack of FCS experience among the large cast of young quarterbacks hoping to back up senior Matt Nichols, which could make any long-term injury to Nichols devastating.



3.        The lack of proven depth on the offensive line, which is already short-handed because of the off-season knee injury suffered by junior veteran Brice Leahy.



4.        The early season absence of starting linebackers Makai Borden (hamstring) and Zach Johnson (blood clots in leg), which leaves a pair of redshirt freshman – Jason Harris and Tyler Washburn – in key backup roles.



5.        Another difficult Big Sky Conference schedule that has the Eagles facing preseason favorite and perennial national power Montana on the road and playing its final three games away from Woodward Field.



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