Maybe it was the sunshine, but there was a sense of renewal at Roos Field on Tuesday.
For most of the Eastern Washington coaches and players, their first spring practice is merely the next step after winter conditioning.
But for three players, the return of spring means a second chance, a chance that was never taken for granted by receivers Brandon Kaufman and Tyler Hart and linebacker Zach Johnson, each of whom took the long road back from injury.
“It’s just incredible,” said Kaufman, an All-American during EWU’s national title season in 2010 who suffered season-ending knee and hand injuries last year.
“You go through a lot of emotions when you put on the helmet again, playing with your best friends,” an emotional Kaufman said as dusk fell at the end of Tuesday’s practice.
Kaufman figures to be part of a standout receiving corps that includes returning first-teamer Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd.
“As far as my knee and hands they feel great,” added Kaufman, who credits the EWU training staff with his comeback. “They were pushing me harder than I’ve ever been pushed.”
Kaufman said he “hopes to get back to the level I was at the end of my sophomore year,” when he had 1,214 yards and 15 touchdowns.
While Kaufman knew he’d be back, Hart and Johnson had to wait for the NCAA to grant medical hardship waivers for a sixth year of eligibility.
The good news came Feb. 6 for Johnson and two weeks later for Hart.
“It’s a big relief that we got a sixth year, both of us,” said Johnson, who was a first-team Big Sky selection in 2010 but suffered knee injuries in 2009 and again last year. “I was told I shouldn’t really because of all the games (19) that I missed, but it was still a big relief.”
While Johnson will probably be held out of spring drills as a precaution, Hart was ready to go after an uncertain winter.
“I was a little bit worried those two weeks (after Johnson received NCAA clearance) and I started changing my plans,” he said. “But when I got the news, my parents were ecstatic.”
Hart says he’s 100 percent, and looked sharp in receiver drills later Tuesday.
After practice, Baldwin said “there were some parts of practice that were good,” but that there’s plenty of work to do.
“We just have to keep that attitude and hustle and working hard, and the rest will take care of itself,” he said.
Baldwin also admitted to having a “little bit of a chip on your shoulder” after last year’s 6-5 season, especially after the Eagles tasted things that are as special as it gets.
“But you have to understand the process that it takes,” he said.
McDonald tabbed as RBs coach
Baldwin filled out his staff with the hiring of former Idaho player Kiel McDonald as running backs coach.
McDonald is the third new coach Eastern has hired since last season, following the addition of cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria and tight ends/offensive tackles coach Brian Strandley.
McDonald, 28, was a graduate assistant coach last year for Dennis Erickson at Arizona State. He was an offensive quality control coach for the Sun Devils.
Prior to that, McDonald was an intern working with the secondary in 2010 for the San Francisco 49ers, and was defensive backs coach and strength coach that same year for San Jose City College.
“It feels great and it’s truly a blessing to be here and falling in line with a great coaching staff,” McDonald said.
McDonald was vocal and encouraging Tuesday as he put his unit through mobility drills.
“Now we’re going to go out and work hard and develop our talents and get better as a unit,” he said.
McDonald played cornerback at Sacramento State in 2005, then transferred to Idaho in 2006 to play for Erickson.
A Big Sky All-Academic selection, McDonald finished his junior season at Sac State with 17 tackles, one interception and four passes broken up before graduating with honors (cum laude) in the spring of 2006.
“It’s great to have his young energy in the office,” Baldwin said.
As promised, quarterbacks Anthony Vitto and Vernon Adams took plenty of snaps, and both looked sharp in 7-on-7 drills … Adams showed nice mobility when the pocket collapsed, and both QBs looked good on short sideline patterns. … Before practice, television reporters asked Baldwin about the QBs who aren’t here yet, namely possible SMU transfer Kyle Padron, but Baldwin clearly wants to focus on the two guys in camp: “I’m less worried about that right now, but I’m more excited about Anthony Vitto and Vernon Adams and what they’re going to do in the next 15 practices.” … The Eagles will practice again at 4 p.m. today without pads. After a day off Thursday, the team will practice with pads on Friday, with the first scrimmage coming up Saturday at 11 a.m.