Eastern Washington practiced in full pads Saturday afternoon for the first time since last spring, and did so – according to defensive coordinator John Graham – with fewer concerns at the cornerback position than they had back in April.
The Eagles lost both starting corners from last year’s NCAA Division I championship team and are staging a spirited competition to find replacements for Jesse Hoffman and Dante Calcote, who combined to make 29 of 30 possible starts as seniors last season.
The four leading contenders to step in as Eastern’s primary pass defenders in 2011 are seniors Alden Gibbs and Jeremy Chaten, and sophomores T.J. Lee III and Ronald Baines, who did not have a start among them in 2010.
“But I still feel great about the position,” said Graham, who added that sophomore Bo Schuetzle, out of Shadle Park High School, is also in the mix. “All of those guys have had a great camp, so far. Obviously they lack some game experience, but they’re competing really well right now.
“I don’t think the corner position is nearly as big a question mark as it was going into the spring. At least, I know I’m sleeping better these days.”
Junior safety Jeff Minnerly, a converted quarterback out of Ferris High School, feels much the same as Graham, having become more comfortable with the absence of Hoffman and Calcote.
“We’ve got a lot of competition and a lot of depth at the spot,” he said. “Sure, a lot of those guys are young, and some of them have very limited experience, but we’re going to be just fine there.”
Among the most intriguing of the cornerbacks competing for a starting spot is Gibbs, a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder who came to Eastern out of College of the Siskiyous (Calif.) on a basketball scholarship in 2009, but played only one year before leaving the team and deciding to play football for the first time since he was in high school.
He lettered last fall, but saw the majority of this playing time on special teams.
“It’s exciting,” he said of the ongoing competition at cornerback. “I played last year, but didn’t get as much playing time as I would have liked. But now, to be battling for one of the starting jobs at corner is great.”
Adding to the uncertainty at corner is the recent decision of Torey Hunter, who spent the last three seasons coaching Eastern’s cornerbacks, to accept a similar position at the University of Idaho.
“We all miss Coach Hunter,” Minnerly said. “He was great coach, and we’re sorry to see him go – but we’re also happy for him. His leaving just means that a couple of other coaches are going to have to pick up some additional responsibilities, and we, as players, have to push each other and coach each other a little bit more back here in the secondary.”
Assistant Jeff Schmedding will continue to coach safeties, while Graham takes over Hunters’ duties with the corners, while also assisting Ryan Sawyer on the defensive line.
“Believe it or not, I used to look like a DB,” Graham said. “I used to be a DB, in fact, and I coached corners for 12 years at Central (Washington). So, it’s not like we’re totally lost in the dark here. And we’ve got a system in place, where we can withstand losing a player or a coach, as long as that system remains sound.
“And ours has, which means we’re going to be okay.”
Greg Panelli, a junior quarterback who redshirted last fall after transferring from Modesto (Calif.) Junior College, has quit the team and is looking into transferring. … Sophomore defensive lineman and University of Washington transfer Andru Pulu is not eligible to play this fall because he did not complete his freshman year at UW.