When Eastern Washington needed something special on the football field in 2010, the Eagles often got it: Five times with the game usually in the balance, they picked up touchdowns on kickoff returns or blocked punts.
“Those plays were not there last year,” said EWU special teams coach Jeff Schmedding, who hopes that fundamentals and a deeper depth chart will lead to more happy returns this season.
Except for kicker, the Eagles return most of their special teams talent and should be solid throughout.
“Really the main focus is on fundamentals,” said Schmedding, who also coaches the secondary – and making sure all the kicking areas are covered.
Here is the outlook for the Eagles’ special teams units:
Punting: Sophomore Jake Miller, a Central Valley product who transferred from Washington State, had a good year in 2011 as the Eagles finished 25th in net punting in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“There’s no question he has a great leg, and he’s a pretty good athlete,” Schmedding said. “He’s working to speed up his times, and he also does a good job of what’s in front of him.”
Miller averaged 44.2 yards per punt and had 10 kicks of better than 50 yards. Only one was blocked.
Place-kicking: Four players are in camp, hoping to replace graduated Mike Jarrett. The competition will “heat up 10-fold in the fall,” said Schmedding, who adds that the Eagles employ one player on kickoffs and another on field goals and extra points.
“We’d love it to be one, but we want to take advantage of their attributes,” Schmedding said. “For field goals, the accuracy needs to be there, and it goes for kickoffs, too.”
The kicker candidates include senior Jimmy Pavel, junior Kevin Miller and walk-ons Cameron Kerkar and Aaron Gleason.
Schmedding expects that head coach Beau Baldwin will “create some competition” with game-like circumstances, noting that it was competition that pushed Jarrett’s field-goal percentage up 30 points in the course of his career.
Senior safety Jeff Minnerly is expected to return as the holder for field goals and extra points.
Punt returns: Last year the Eagles returned just nine punts for a total of 76 yards. Junior wide receiver Ashton Clark handled seven of those, averaging 11.6 yards. “He does a great job catching the ball,” Schmedding said. Fellow receivers Shaquille Hill and Tyler Hart are also getting looks at the position.
The Eagles averaged 8.7 yards per return last year, 57th in the 120-team FCS.
Kickoff coverage: “Things fell off a little last year,’ Schmedding said of a unit that gave up 21.8 yards per return. Although some candidates are injured, Schmedding is fashioning a three-deep at all coverage positions.
Regardless of who kicks, he also hopes to put more kicks into the end zone, thanks to a rule that puts the ball at the 35-yard line.
Kickoff returns: The Eagles ranked 89th in FCS last year while using four players, including running back Mario Brown (13 returns last year), wide receiver Greg Herd (11) , receiver Cory Mitchell (nine), and running back Quincy Forte (six).
The Eagles averaged 19 yards per return, opponents 21.8.
“This is an emphasis,” said Schmedding, who is looking at quite a few candidates this spring. He has no shortage of volunteers, including All-American wide receiver Nicholas Edwards. “A lot of people are getting their shots,” but most of the competition will come in the fall.
Long snapping: Senior Jake Potter has been solid the past two years and will return. “I’m working this spring on getting my timing down and just being confident,” Potter said.
The Eagles expect to run about 60 plays in a scrimmage today that will conclude the third week of spring practice. The team will begin practice at 10 a.m., and the scrimmage will begin at about 10:40. … The Eagles will practice one more week after today’s scrimmage, finishing April 28 with the annual Red-White game as part of the 31st annual Orland Killin Weekend at EWU.
Follow Eastern Washington football reporter Jim Allen on Twitter @srjimallen