This is the last of an eight-part look at Eastern Washington spring football: special teams.
Something special happened at Roos Field on Oct. 6, something Eastern fans hadn’t seen in 18 games: a kickoff return for an Eagle touchdown.
But Shaquille Hill’s 99-yard return against North Dakota didn’t start at the 1-yard-line; it began last spring, when head coach Beau Baldwin decided to add a cornerbacks coach, allowing assistant Jeff Schmedding more time to focus on special teams.
“I think our (kickoff return) personnel was better, but I think we did a better job with extra time, being more efficient with our time and getting things truly taught from spring on,” said Schmedding, who still coaches the Eagle safeties. The extra time also included special-teams walkthroughs before every game.
And while not every unit had the same spectacular result, Eastern special teams generally showed improvement from 2011. Here’s a look at Eagle special teams during spring drills:
KICKOFF RETURNS: The Eagles finished 14th in FCS with a 23.5 average, up 4 ½ yards from the year before, and Hill would have had another TD had he not dropped the ball just before crossing the goal line in the Eagles’ quarterfinal win over Illinois State. Cory Mitchell added a non-scoring 67-yard return in the same game. Both are expected to do double duty this year as wideouts and returners.
“I would like to do even more than I did last year, bring even more excitement,” Hill said.
KICKOFF COVERAGE: The extra time extended to covering kicks as well; opponents’ averages declined from 21.8 yards to 20.1, perhaps showing that the Eagle staff and players adapted better to the kickoff rules changes than did their opponents. And even though “we gave up a couple of long ones I didn’t like,” Schmedding said, the Eagles never gave up a TD. Kicker Kevin Miller has a strong leg and consistently placed the ball in the end zone. “My mind set was to kick it as deep as I can,” said Miller, a senior. “I just need to get more consistent with height of the ball coming off the ground.”
PUNT RETURNS: The success didn’t extend to punt returns, where the Eagles’ average plummeted from 8.4 to 6.4, partly because of new personnel and new blocking formations. “It’s a combination of things,” Schmedding said, noting that more teams are changing their coverages and using rugby-style kicks. “But we haven’t been consistent enough.”
Another wide receiver, Ashton Clark, is expected back, while safety Jordan Tonani also is getting a look during spring drills. “We have multiple kids who can return punts,” Schmedding said.
PUNTING and PUNT COVERAGE:If his career were to end now, Jake Miller’s 43.8-yard average would be a school record, topping the 43.2 average of Jesse Nicassio from 2002-3. The 6-5 Miller, now a junior, had plenty of highlights last year, including a 74-yarder at Washington State.
“And some really bad ones,” added Miller, a transfer from WSU who said he’s working hard this spring to “fix some things and getting more consistent.” Miller is the only punter on Eastern’s spring roster.
The Eagles ranked 44th in FCS but only ninth in the Big Sky Conference last year in net punting with a 36.0 average.
PLACEMENT KICKS: All Pavel did last year was replace an All-American in Mike Jarrett, and become one himself; Pavel finished 18-for 20 on field goal attempts. Miller is the heir apparent, having battled Pavel to the wire last August.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Merritt also is in the mix; Roldan Alcobendas will arrive in August.
“Over the last two seasons, we’ve spent a lot of time creating competion,” said Schemdding, noting that head coach Beau Baldwin has worked hard to put kickers in game situations during fall camp.
LONG SNAPPER – The Eagles have three candidates. Two of them – juniors Trevor Moles and Kadeem Smalls – are in camp now. A third, Cory Alcantas will arrive from Riverside., Calif., in the fall as the only junior college transfer on the roster.
Schmedding said he’s looking for a “kid who can do more than snap.” That means either snapping and covering, or snapping and protecting.
“That can give us more options,” Schmedding said.