The target on the collective back of Eastern Washington University’s defending NCAA Division I national championship football team can’t get any bigger.
And the Eagles, according to fourth-year head coach Beau Baldwin, are OK with that.
“In terms of the target that comes with winning a national title and being ranked high again this year, that’s what we want,” said Baldwin, who will welcome 15 starters and 35 other letterwinners from last year’s 13-2 team that beat Delware 20-19 in finals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to Wednesday’s opening day of fall camp. “It’s all part of the vision we set before last year, when we talked about taking what was already a very good program to the next level.
“And we weren’t talking about doing it for just one year. Our mindset was to do it for a long time.”
Eastern, which has made the FCS playoffs five of the last seven years, opens defense of its national championship on Saturday, Sept. 3, against the University of Washington in Seattle. And it will do so as the No. 1-ranked team in the country by at least three preseason football publications or websites.
The tendency of a first-time national championship team, one might think, would be to emulate the golfer who hangs up his clubs after making a hole in one, figuring things can’t get any better. But Baldwin insists that has not been the case with his veteran team.
“We want another hole in one,” he said. “I think, when you get to experience the playoffs – and especially a deep playoff run, like we did last year, it can really be addictive. There’s just that feeling and mentality where you know what kind of discipline and hard work it took to get there last year, and realizing it’s going to take even more discipline and hard work to have that much fun again.
“Our kids, to their credit, have taken that kind of approach during the offseason.”
Still, Baldwin warned his players during spring practice about the dangers of believing it’s easy to stay atop the pinnacle of college football once you’ve arrived.
“I used all the clichés – ‘We haven’t won a game in 2011,’ and all that kind of stuff,” he explained. “But in a weird way, because of the maturity and leadership of our kids, it probably wasn’t necessary to remind them, because they were already thinking that way.
“So, if anything, I want to lean more toward it being OK to carry some of that mentality into camp. You know, ‘We’re the defending champs, we’re that for a reason and a lot of us were a big part of that. That isn’t going to automatically win you games in 2011, but by all means, you should take that attitude into camp – without it being a cockiness, but a confidence, instead.”
According to Baldwin, there are several position battles – especially on defense, where both starting cornerbacks and 2010 Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt were lost to graduation – still to be waged this fall.
He added, however, that this year’s team is already as far along as any he has coached in its preparation for its season opener.
“Because of our playoff run, a lot of these guys earned a lot of extra practice at the end of last year – the most you could possibly have, in fact,” he explained. “It was like a second spring ball, really. So, while you never feel perfect about it, I feel this team is in a good spot, mentally.
“This is a team I can throw a lot of stuff at early in camp, and they’re going to be okay with it. We’re still going to stress fundamentals this fall, but we’ll definitely be ahead of where we usually are in terms of schemes and their installation this early in the season.”
Baldwin and his staff put a highly touted group of incoming freshmen through physical testing on Monday and will welcome all veterans back on campus today. The first practice of fall camp will be held a 3 p.m. on Wednesday. … Four players –Chandler Gayton (foot surgery), Domonic Sheppard (ineligible), Jarred Walker (back injury) and Andru Pulu (NCAA transfer rule) – will not play this season, but Baldwin is hoping all will be available next fall. … Oft-injured senior safety Ethen Robinson, a 2006 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School, has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after previously playing in nine games in parts of two different seasons because of knee, shoulder and Achilles tendon injuries. … Eastern will practice in full pads or the first time on Saturday and stage its first preseason camp scrimmage a week later on Aug. 20 at approximately 3:30 p.m. at Roos Field.