Sports

Eastern Eagles need safety net

Safety first.

It’s not only a good rule to live by, but in this instance, it also defines the priority list of Eastern Washington University’s football team.

Eastern, which is ranked 13th in The Sports Network/Fathead.com NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 Preseason Poll, seems to be deep, talented and talented at all positions as it prepares for a Sept. 2 season opener against Nevada in Reno – with the exception of safety.

And the many questions third-year head coach Beau Baldwin and his staff have at that position were not answered on Wednesday, when the Eagles staged their first scrimmage of fall camp.

With sophomore Erich Armstrong, who was listed as the starting free safety coming into the season, having opted to give up on football during the offseason, and both his backup, sophomore Jeff Minnerly, and projected strong safety starter Matt Johnson watching from the sidelines with nagging injuries, the safety positions remained in an state of uncertainty.

So much so, that safeties coach Jeff Schmedding walked converted cornerbacks Alden Gibbs and Allen Brown and former linebacker Jakob Pugsley through their new assignments for the first time during a meeting before scrimmage.

All three – including Gibbs, a 6-foot-3 junior who was a backup on Eastern’s basketball team last winter but decided to give up that sport to play football – looked raw, but willing, during a situational scrimmage that saw neither the offense nor defense exert noticeable superiority.

“It’s something were going to look at tonight when we watch film and talk about different personnel and moves we might make,” Baldwin said, when asked about he unsettled situation in his defensive backfield. “You saw some today, but whether those are permanent or not, we don’t know.

“If we can get a few of those other guys healthy, who aren’t right now, I think we have a chance to be really solid and deep at that position. If we don’t, then there’s definitely going to have to be a couple of guys that move into that position, because there’s no way we can survive (in Reno) with two, three or even four safeties. We need five or six out there repping in practice.”

Johnson, who started all 12 games at strong safety as a sophomore last fall, is suffering from a muscle pull behind his knee.

Minnerly, who was converted from quarterback to free safety in the spring, tweaked a hamstring earlier in the week.

That left junior John Roberts and redshirt freshman Chandler Gayton, who was moved from cornerback earlier this fall, as the only two safeties with even practice experience.

Still, Baldwin sounded optimistic that his cornerbacks-turned-safeties are capable of handling the change.

“With the exception of Pugsley, who went from linebacker to safety, the others were corners who moved to safety,” he said. “And a lot of times they’re meeting together (with the safeties) and doing individual drills together, so that part (of the learning curve) isn’t too bad.”

Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, a consensus preseason all-American who led the nation in tackles with an average of 14.17 per game last fall, said there are some unfamiliar faces playing behind him but expressed no obvious concern about the Eagles’ defensive backfield.

“With Matt and Jeff out, we had some young guys who got a shot to play today,” Sherritt said. “But that great for our team, because it’s football and injuries are going to happen during the season, too – just like last year when we saw it happen big time toward the end of the year.”

“I think it was great to see those new guys get out and play, because we’re going to need them all at some point.”

The offense and defense took turns having it their way during scrimmage. But junior transfer Bo Levi Mitchell, who won the starting quarterback job in the spring, looked especially sharp, completing 10 of 16 passes for 151 yards and scrambling 10 yards for a touchdown.



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