Eagles lookin’ ahead
Tweaks designed to give Eastern more options in the fall
As if he didn’t see enough different looks last season, Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams saw a few more this spring: quicker receivers, a thicker playbook and teammates looking for him to lead – all while coping with high winds that whipped Roos Field every time Eastern Washington took the practice field.
Asked about his progress in the past year, he likened the Vernon Adams of a year ago to a “chicken with its head cut off – always looking to run.
“Now I know my reads and feel a lot more comfortable,” Adams said. “We’re going to be all right.”
The football coaches already knew that – on both sides of the ball. Unlike the previous spring, tweaks during spring ball had more to do with formations than body parts.
That included new offensive looks, including the read option out of a pistol formation, to take advantage of Adams’ speed.
“He throws well on the move,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “It allows him to get into a rhythm, it allows you to take advantage of his skill set, and even when he’s not carrying the ball, the threat of that can open up things elsewhere.”
This was nothing new for Baldwin, who called more bootlegs and sprintouts last season when Adams was in the lineup. Now the coaches have four months until the season opener at Oregon State to “re-evaluate, to add some of the things you like and cut back on what you didn’t,” Baldwin said.
“But then, I’ve never come out of spring and had my exact package,” he added.
With spring camp concluded, the Eagles’ biggest challenges appear to be:
• Improving timing in the passing game even while honing new schemes, including the zone read.
• Developing a more consistent running game, regardless of the defense.
• Utilizing a physical, experienced group of tight ends in the passing game.
• Devising schemes that minimize the lack of depth at linebacker while making the most of a deep and talented secondary.
• Filling several positions on special teams.
Here’s a position-by-position look at how the Eagles shape up at the end of spring camp:
Adams was perhaps the biggest surprise in the Big Sky last season. He’s still his own worst critic, lamenting “too many interceptions” in spring drills but vowing to work all summer with a new group of receivers and already planning summer road trips to Washington State and Idaho for 7-on-7 drills against the Cougars and Vandals. Steady senior Anthony Vitto is still No. 2 on the depth chart, but Baldwin said newcomer Jordan West “has been fun to watch in his growth.”
Baldwin said he hopes to be more consistent in the ground game – regardless of what opposing defenses give up. With the emergence of sophomore Jabari Wilson and the return of senior Mario Brown from a late-career redshirt season, this group looks deeper than ever. Junior Quincy Forte should thrive next year as a dual-purpose back, while Demitrius Bronson – sidelined in the spring by minor hip surgery – offers a nice blend of speed and power.
Instead of losing a step with the departure of “The Trio,” the Eagles may have gained a couple. Adams said he’s still adjusting to the speed of this group, which includes senior returnees Ashton Clark – the Eagles’ third-leading receiver last year – plus Cory Mitchell and Daniel Johnson, along with Cooper Kupp and Shaquille Hill. The depth is still untested, but got a boost from Washington State transfer Blair Bomber.
This veteran group did more than block during the spring game, and is deeper in some respects than the wide receivers. With veterans Zack Gehring, Cody Humphrey, Ryan Seto, Jake Withnell and fast-rising Zach Chapman, it will be interesting to see if more balls are thrown their way this fall.
In contrast with last year, the starting lineup is all but set. Redshirt sophomore Clay DeBord, who had a strong freshman year, is back at left tackle, while Cassidy Curtis is the heir apparent to All-American Will Post at right tackle. The interior line is manned by three senior starters: left guard Steven Forgette, center Ashton Miller and right guard Drew Reynolds. With 15 players in the unit, the Eagles also are deeper than last year at this time. Baldwin said backup right guard Aaron Neary “jumped out.”
This group should be more physical and perhaps deeper than last year, thanks partly to the return of physical end Anthony Larry, the addition of two former linebackers and the Eagles’ practice of rotating nine or 10 players during games. Senior tackle Andru Pulu was held out of spring drills with a foot injury, but is expected back in time for summer conditioning. Another senior tackle, Will Katoa, looks poised for a big year. The biggest change is the adoption of a “buck” end/linebacker position, which will be filled by Larry and Evan Day. Branson Schmidt, a sophomore from Central Valley, “has been really impressive,” Baldwin said. The biggest worry may be replacing sack-meister Jerry Ceja at end. The group is bolstered by the addition of linebackers Jordan Pulu and John Goldwire.
Fans may be more worried than the coaches about this group, which lost six players from last year’s roster but returns All-Big Sky performer Ronnie Hamlin and veterans Cody McCarthy and J.C. Agen. Baldwin said former running back Jordan Talley and ex-safety Miquiyah Zamora have been pleasant surprises. Three true freshmen will get a close look this fall and perhaps a chance to play immediately.
“I wasn’t afraid of the fact that we were going to be young at linebacker, because every year you’re young somewhere,” Baldwin said. “I like the way they’ve approached the learning curve – ultimately it’s made us have tougher situations than what we might face in games.”
This may be the deepest and most talented unit on the squad, especially after the arrival of UCLA transfer safety Tevin McDonald. Senior Allen Brown and sophomore Jordan Tonani also will contend for starting spots, and Baldwin said he was impressed with redshirt freshmen Jordan Thompson, Jude Isbell and walk-on Zach Bruce. In the past, the Eagles have usually divided the field between safeties in a Cover 2, but in the spring game, McDonald started at free safety – his position at UCLA – and Tonani at strong safety.
Regardless, “that’s a position where all of a sudden we’re going to be incredibly deep,” Baldwin said. At cornerback, T.J. Lee III is poised for another all-conference year, with fellow senior Ronald Baines returning on the other side. Loads of experience returns in the form of seniors Bo Schuetzle and Kentucky transfer Christian Hudnell, along with sophomore Miles Weatheroy. Redshirt freshman Diamonte Wiggins also has impressed.
There may be more questions here than anywhere else. Senior Kevin Miller is the incumbent on kickoffs, and wants to kick field goals and extra points as well, but redshirt freshman Trevor Merritt is also in the mix. The Eagles also need a new holder. Junior Jake Miller is back at punter, while Trevor Moles and Kadeem Smalls are vying for long snapper. Coaches are hoping for more in the punt-return game, and several players are getting a look.
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reporter Jim Allen
on Twitter for regular team updates @srjimallen