Having played the position in high school and college, Beau Baldwin understands its importance. And he knows that the average college football fan understands it, as well.
So Eastern Washington University’s second-year head coach sees no sense in trying to hide the fact that developing – or recruiting – a new starting quarterback tops his offseason to-do list.
Matt Nichols, who has manned the position for the past four seasons, used up his eligibility this fall, leading the Eagles to an 8-4 record and their fourth Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth in six years.
Now Baldwin and his staff must find a successor for the two-time Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP, who broke 14 school records and six conference marks en route to finishing fourth in this year’s voting for the Walter Payton Award that is given to the nation’s top FCS player.
Among the top candidates are sophomores-to-be Jeff Minnerly and Scott Burgett, who were listed 2-3 on the depth chart this fall. But both are woefully short of experience, having combined to complete just 6 of 10 passes for a meager 25 yards as redshirt freshmen this fall.
First-year junior college transfer Nick Gauthier, and freshman Anthony Vitto, who both redshirted this year, will also get good looks this spring. J.C. Levenseller, who announced he was transferring from Washington State last August, also expected to figure into the quarterback battle, but, according to Baldwin, never enrolled in school.
“Obviously, none of the four guys we have right now are going to come in and do the things Matt did late in his career,” Baldwin said. “But I feel good about the fact that it will be a great competition, and I’m hoping one of them will come out this spring and emerge as our starter.
“I’ve talked to all four of them about that. And it’s a position we’ll continue to recruit, as well, because it’s such an important position. People are lying to you if they don’t admit that the quarterback, in college football these days, is as important as it comes.”
The last time Eastern was saddled with the task of replacing a veteran quarterback was in the spring of 2006 after Erik Meyer had become the school’s first Payton Award winner by leading the Eagles to second-straight FCS playoff appearance.
Things did not go well.
Nichols, a redshirt freshman at the time, was prematurely thrust into the role and threw a school-record 17 interceptions as the Eagles finished 3-8 and posted their first losing season in seven seasons.
Baldwin, who was EWU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach back then, recalls the rocky transition.
But with sophomore running back Taiwan Jones, the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher – along with three starters in the offensive line and several young receivers who played key roles this fall – returning, he expects things to go smoothly this time, no matter who wins the job.
“The main difference is that Matt went through his growing pains with a weaker running game,” Baldwin said. “We didn’t have a Taiwan Jones on the team at that time, and I’d say, overall, that our defense wasn’t as strong as the one we have coming back.
“Plus, his receivers were all freshmen, too, for the most part.”
The Eagles will be young at wideout again next fall, but sophomores-to-be Nicholas Edwards, Brandon Kauffman and Greg Herd will all head into spring drills season well-tested.
Baldwin expects his 2010 team to be solid on defense, even though the Eagles were torched for 89 points and 1,310 yards in their final two games this fall.
The main reason behind Baldwin’s optimism is the way his defensive unit played throughout most of the year, despite having to replace three starting interior linemen, including Buchanan Award winner Greg Peach.
“We knew we were in a tough spot from the get go this year, having to replace those D-linemen and a couple of cornerbacks,” Baldwin said. “At the end of the year, injuries got to us a little bit, and we ran into some depth issues. But overall, our defense did a lot of good things along the way, and I think we’re going to be able to build off that and be really strong next year.”
Six of those who started in EWU’s 44-33 first-round playoff loss to Stephen F. Austin are back, and sophomore middle linebacker Zach Johnson, who missed the entire 2009 season with blood clots in his leg, is expected to be cleared to practice again this spring.
Among the top returnees will be junior linebacker J.C. Sheritt, who finished the regular season as the top FCS tackler with 170, and sophomore strong safety, Matt Johnson, who finished second on the team with 102 tackles and intercepted six passes.
“As it turned out, we ended up with six linebackers with a lot of experience coming back,” Baldwin said, noting there is a good chance freshman and former defensive end Paul Ena will remain the middle linebacker position, where he finished the season. “So I feel really good about that group.
“Our overall numbers and overall depth on defense should be much improved next year, and ultimately, it needs to be, because there’s a good chance we won’t be scoring as many points as we did this year.”
Baldwin hopes to be able to rotate players throughout his defense in the same way he was able to rotate defensive linemen this fall. The reason he gave spoke volumes about where he expects his Eagles to end up next season.
“We need to do a better job of rotating guys and keeping them fresh the entire season, especially if you want to play more than 11 games,” he said.
“And that’s our goal, again.”