Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said there is a different feel around his program as his Eagles prepare for today’s start of spring football practice.
And why shouldn’t there be?
For the first time in school history, Eastern opens spring drills as the NCAA Division I national champion, having closed the 2010 season with 11 straight wins, including a memorable 20-19 comeback win over Delaware in the Jan. 7 finale of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in Frisco, Texas.
That unprecedented postseason run not only landed the Eagles their first FCS championship trophy, but earned them almost six additional weeks of practice time.
“It almost feels like this is our second spring practice,” said Baldwin, who expects to have about 75 players – including 15 returning starters from last year’s 13-2 title team – at this afternoon’s initial spring workout, which is scheduled to start at 4. “I feel like were more ahead than we’ve ever been at this point, because of all the extra practices we got last winter.
“I mean, once we got into our conditioning drills, it became obvious that are guys are in great shape. So, yeah, it does feel a little different – but in a good way.”
Despite the immense success the Eagles experienced last season, they approached the offseason with the same hunger and drive they showed last year. Baldwin expects that to continue throughout spring camp, which will culminate on April 30 with the annual Red-White Game.
“They did a really good job of putting the championship run behind them and focusing on what they need to do, not necessarily to win another title, but to have a better February and March than we had last year,” Baldwin said. “And now it’s all about having a better April than we did last April. That’s the mindset we need to have.
“You can’t just get focused on the idea that we’ve go out and repeat, and that anything short of that is a disappointment. That doesn’t set you up for any sort of success, in my opinion. You have to focus on those short-term goals that got us there last year.”
With so many starters returning, it might seem that competition for individual positions would be minimized. But Baldwin said he hopes – and expects – heated battles for every starting job, and not just those vacant because of graduations.
Still, most of the focus in that regard will be on the defense, where the Eagles need to find replacements for outside linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt, as well as defensive tackle Tyler Jolley and cornerbacks Jess Hoffman and Dante Calcote.
There are also a couple of big holes to fill on offense, particularly at the starting running back position that was manned last season by junior all-American Taiwan Jones, who hired an agent during the offseason and declared for the NFL draft.
Among the leading candidates to replace Jones are sophomore-to-be Mario Brown, who started three games – including the FCS championship matchup against Delaware – that Jones missed with injuries; senior Darriell Beaumonte, who is also a special teams player; and 5-foot-10, 225-pound sophomore Demitrius Bronson, a first-year transfer from the University of Washington, who is eligible to practice this spring.
Along with filling all of the holes on the preseason depth chart, Baldwin listed several other priorities heading into spring practice.
“Our more true football-specific goals include learning to play at a faster pace on both sides of the football,” he said. “And we would also like to improve our turnover margin, primarily through fewer giveaways by our offense, and our third-down percentage on defense.
“Those three things are going to be points of emphasis this spring.”
The Eagles will work without pads this afternoon and on Saturday, before holding their first practice with pads on Tuesday. The first of three spring scrimmages is set for next Friday.