This is the fourth of an eight-part series on Eastern Washington spring football: the offensive line.
The Eastern Washington offensive linemen got some healthy respect year. But first they had to get healthy .
A year after being one of the biggest question marks on the team, Aaron Best’s unit may be one of the best in the Big Sky Conference. This spring, when the coaches talk about tweaks, it has nothing to do with body parts.
“The fact that we don’t have a lot of knee braces, and some experience to boot, it’s nice to have as a coach,” Best said. “All of a sudden you’re a better coach.”
Certainly the Eagle offense can get more accomplished this month and in fall camp with a 15-man-strong line that includes nine returning letter-winners and four starters. Instead of picking up the pieces of an injury-riddled 2011 season, the entire unit has a head start on picking up the nuances of what the coaches want to accomplish.
“It definitely helps,” head coach Beau Baldwin said. “If you’re going to try to tweak some things, you’ve got to have that group together and rep it. It’s going to pay dividends in spring and fall camp.”
Here is a position-by -position look at the Eagles’ offensive line:
TACKLE:This was one of the biggest questions of last fall after the graduation of left tackle Gabe Marks, but Clay DeBord answered emphatically. Then a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-6, 290-pounder from Asotin, Wash., took the starting spot in August and kept it all year.
A crucial part of the blocking scheme for Eastern’s pass-heavy offense, DeBord impressed Best and the other coaches with “his movement and how well he can contain the pass rush,” Best said. “It was evident right away that he was able.”
DeBord is ready to take the next step.
“I’m not a freshman anymore, so I can’t be making freshman mistakes,” he said. “I have a lot more experience, so I have to show it.”
The biggest question is at right tackle, where Will Post earned All-America honors last season before graduating. Cassidy Curtis, a 6-7, 290-pound sophomore, battled DeBord last year at left tackle, but so far is the top contender at the other end.
Others in the mix at both tackle positions include sophomore T.J. Boatright (6-5, 265), who is missing spring ball with a quadriceps injury; sophomore Jordan Ellison (6-2, 300) and freshman Will Boule (6-7, 295).
GUARD: Quick, name the current Eastern Washington football players with the most career starts.
That would be left guard Steven Forgette, a 6-4, 300-pound senior who at this time last year was still recovering from a broken fibula.
By the end of the 2012 season, Forgette was standing tall, starting all 13 games and putting himself in position to win Big Sky Conference honors this fall.
“I expect him to be one of the two best guards in the league,” Best said. “He’s as physical as you can be, and he was a pass protection phenom last season.”
For Forgette, a successful season “creates that chemistry, that trust, but it’s more on us to do the small things right.”
Another senior, Brandon Murphy (6-4, 305) is back at right guard. His 23 career starts are second on the roster behind Forgette, but some were earned on defense in 2010 before he moved back to offense. Murphy started all 14 games last year.
“Getting used to to people next to you is more important than anything,” said Murphy, who played next to Post last year.
The interior line is deep as well. Top reserves at guard include senior Drew Reynolds (6-1, 290), sophomore Thomas Gomez (6-3, 295), sophomore Aaron Neary (6-4, 275) and sophomore David Delgado (6-2, 320).
“All are more than capable,” Best said.
CENTER: Ashton Miller was yet another injury rehab last year, coming off an Achilles injury but rebounding to start all 14 games at center. Last year, Best wondered “who is this guy and he’s coming off an Achilles – how is this going to work out?”
Quite well as it turned out, as Miller a 6-2, 300-pound senior, performed above expectations all year. “He’s one of the best centers in the league,” Murphy said.
Miller is backed up by junior Jase Butorac (6-3, 285) and sophomore Jay Deines (6-4, 275).
For Baldwin, a healthy offensive line “helps the hunger and the drive for each player, because they know they can’t slip at all because there’s someone else out there who wants to get on the field.”