March 31, 2010 in Sports

Eagles have big shoes to fill

Team must replace All-America QB Nichols
By The Spokesman-Review
FILE photo

Taiwan Jones returns to EWU backfield, but Eagles must find a right tackle for him to run behind.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

As Eastern Washington University’s head football coach, Beau Baldwin is obligated to mention there are several key position battles that will start to play out in earnest today when the Eagles open spring drills with a 4 p.m. workout at the EWU Sports and Recreation Center practice fields.

But good luck selling that notion – as accurate as it might be – to the general public, which will have its collective eye firmly fixed on the six young men hoping to step into the high-profile position of starting quarterback.

“I know that’s what most people will be looking at,” Baldwin said of the crowded field competing to take over for All-America Matt Nichols, a four-year starter and two-time Big Sky Conference offensive MVP, who set BSC career records for passing yards and total offense. “And it is a unique situation, just because of the numbers.

“But we have some other issues to resolve on offense, as well, like finding a right tackle to replace Chris Thomas and a slot receiver to replace Tony Davis.”

The Eagles, who finished 8-4 after losing to Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last fall, will also need a tight end to step in for the departed Nathan Overbay.

Still, it will be the battle at quarterback, at which transfers Bo Levi Mitchell and Greg Panelli, join four seldom- or never-used holdovers off last year’s roster – freshmen Jeff Minnerly and Scott Burgett, and junior Nick Gauthier and freshman Anthony Vitto, who both redshirted in 2009 – that promises to be the most entertaining.

“Early on, we’re going to try to give each of those six as many looks as we can,” Baldwin said. “But within a week, and definitely within the first half of spring, you’re going to see three or four getting most of the reps.

“And to be quite honest, we won’t bring six true quarterbacks back in the fall.”

Baldwin hopes one of the six will emerge as the starter this spring, but admits that might not happen.

Mitchell, who will be a junior next fall, may be the most intriguing prospect, having started 19 games in two seasons at Southern Methodist University, where he threw for 4,590 yards and 36 touchdowns but was intercepted 33 times. Panelli, another junior-to-be, passed for more than 5,000 yards and 56 TDs in two seasons as a starter at Modesto (Calif.) Junior College, where he twice earned all-league honors.

Of the returning prospects, only Minnerly and Burgett have played at the Division-I level, but they combined to throw only 10 passes while backing up Nichols last season.

Baldwin said all six players are “quality kids,” which could prove to be important as the competition heats up.

“They’re all great competitors, too,” Baldwin said. “And there’s going to be some of them – probably even all of them – who are going to want more of an opportunity than they’re getting, but they all seem to be handling the situation really well right now.”

There seems to be fewer questions to answer on defense, thanks, in part, to the return of strong-side linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who led all FCS defenders in tackles as a junior last fall, when he averaged more than 14 a game to earn a spot on five FCS All-America teams and finished second in the Buchanan Award voting for the nation’s top defensive player.

“J.C. had a great year, and we expect him and (nose tackle) Tyler Jolley to step up and become the leaders of our defense,” Baldwin said.

According to Baldwin, several players who are expected to play major roles next fall will see only limited or no action this spring.

Among those is Taiwan Jones, the Eagles’ All-America running back, who underwent offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia and will see only limited action while also working to rehab injuries he suffered to both shoulders and a hand last fall.

Players who will not practice this spring include defensive backs Matt Johnson (shoulder), Ethen Robinson (shoulder), and Jakob Pugsley and defensive end Jakob Scott. Bryce Leahy (knee), tight end Zack Gehring (shoulder) and linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (knee) are among those who will see only limited practice time, at best.

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