April 8, 2010 in Sports

Eastern puts on pads, takes look at QB jam

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

Bo Levi Mitchell, left, and Greg Panelli are top candidates to replace Matt Nichols.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Eastern Washington University’s football team strapped on pads Wednesday for the first time this spring, but the Eagles failed to wow third-year head coach Beau Baldwin with either their energy or effort.

“We were a little flat out there at times,” Baldwin said after putting his team through a 21/2-hour practice that included about 20 minutes of live situational play-running. “But I think a lot of it was just the fact that we were in a weird situation – and it’ll be the only time it happens the whole spring – where we practiced last Thursday and then didn’t practice again until Wednesday.”

While the rust from the six-day layoff was obvious, it was hardly a cause of great concern for Baldwin, who addressed the matter with his players after practice and insisted the bigger issue will be “how you respond coming back tomorrow.”

The Eagles will practice in full pads again this afternoon and hold their first scrimmage of the spring at approximately 1 p.m. Saturday. By then, Baldwin hopes to have a better handle on the murky situation at quarterback, as six players are competing for the starting job.

“Really, by the end of the week, and going into next week, it’s going to be down to four – maybe even three – quarterbacks getting the majority of the reps,” Baldwin said. “Over the next practice, or two, it’s going to weed itself down quite a bit.”

The six players competing for the spot vacated last fall by the Big Sky Conference’s all-time passing yardage and total offense leader Matt Nichols are Jeff Minnerly, Scott Burgett, Nick Gauthier, Anthony Vitto, Bo Levi Mitchell and Greg Panelli.

Minnerly and Burgett each played sparingly as redshirt freshmen last fall, while Vitto, a freshman, and Gautheir, a second-year junior transfer, both redshirted. Mitchell is a junior to be and first-year transfer from Southern Methodist University, where he started as a true freshman in 2008, but lost his job after a slow start last fall. Panelli is a first-year transfer from Modesto (Calif.) Junior College.

All but Burgett got at least a few repetitions during Wednesday’s live action, but none seemed to noticeably distance himself from the others.

“It’s different,” said Minnerly, a former standout at Ferris High, who played in six games last fall, but completed only 4 of 8 passes for 6 yards. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm, because you’re not getting a whole lot of reps, so it’s important to take advantage of the reps you do get.”

Mitchell exhibited the strongest arm of the six quarterback candidates and said things are starting to come easier for him each day.

“You come out here at first thinking you’ve learned all the plays and you know all your drops,” he said. “Then all of a sudden practice starts and your head starts swimming a little bit. But it was like that my freshman year (at SMU), too.

“All you can do is to convince yourself to buckle down and study – almost as much as you study at school – until you get to the point where everything is so engrained that you can just come out and play without having to think about what you’re supposed to do.”

Quarterbacks coach Zak Hill appreciates having so many qualified candidates to work with, but he also realizes each has his strengths and weaknesses.

“Some of them are big kids with strong arms, while others are a little bit better agility-wise and can move around better,” he said. “We just need to find out which one fits our offense best, and which one is going to be the most efficient.”

Baldwin said there will be some disappointed young men as the process of finding a replacement for Nichols continues to play out.

“We’ve got six guys who want badly to have the ball in their hands,” he said. “They’re all great kids and great competitors, and they’ve all had success, at different times in their lives, playing the position of quarterback. So it’s a challenge for all of them to come in here and be put in this position.

“Fortunately, they’re all great team guys, and they’ve all kept a great attitude so far through what is going to eventually amount to a tough situation for at least half of them.”

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