If there’s one thing the Eastern defensve coaches want to take away from spring drills, it’s takeways.
There weren’t enough of them last year - only 16 overall, down from 47 in the national title season the year before.
“For a defense, takeaways is the the biggest stat there is,” secondary coach Jeff Schmedding said. “As a unit, you have to be accountable when those opportunities present themselves.”
The Eagles had just seven interceptions last year, but that was partly because opponents took advantage of numerous injuries to EWU linebackers with runs and short passes that didn’t present the interception opportunities for which Schmedding was hoping.
“You can’t be too anxious for interceptions,” said cornerback T.J Lee III, a returning all-Big Sky first-team selection. “You just have to keep working your craft, and they’ll keep coming to you.”
Those should increase this year, thanks to three returning starters, plenty of depth and talent up fromt, and a new assistant coach, Cherokee Valeria, who is responsible for cornerbacks while Schmedding works with the safeties.
“There fundamental different in those positions,” Schmedding said. “So there are parts that we can work on separately (in practice) without wasting reps.”
The cornerbacks appreciate the change too.
“He makes sure that we communicate, and away from the field he’s been more of a friend than a coach,” Lee said. “He’s shown that he cares about us.”
Here is how the Eagles are shaping up this spring in the secondary:
SAFETY – This should be a strength, thanks to returning starter Jeff Minnerly, who will be a senior this year, and Allen Brown, a former cornerback who got valuable game experience when starter Matt Johnson was injured last season.
“I feel pretty confident right now. We’re attacking it pretty hard in spring,” said Brown, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior. “It” would be tackling. “We can all cover, but it takes awhile to get the tackling part of it.”
While small for a safety – the Eagles don’t differentiate between strong and free safeties – Brown has the tools and is a leader, Schmedding said. “He’s vocal and is practicing at a high pace right now.”
Which is what Minnerly would like to do but for a groin injury suffered on the first day of spring drills.
It’s really frustrating,” Minnerly said. “You work hard all winter to get ready, but I’m trying to do as much as I can to help out the other guys.”
Minnerly, (6-1, 200) enters his final season as one of the key players on the defense, and was a major contributor on the national title team. He is also the holder for field goals and extra points, and last year was an all-District Academic selection.
“He’s such a smart kid, and he understands the coverages,” Schmedding said. “This spring it’s been a little tough on him, but he had a great offseason and I expect him to have his best year yet.”
The top backup may be redshirt freshman Jordan Tonani, like Minnerly a product of Ferris High School and a two-way starter on the Saxons’ State 4A title team in 2010. The 6-0, 180-pound Tonani “had a great off-season and on the field has been very competitive,” Schmedding said.
That might put Tonani on the field on sure passing downs, but the biggest question, Schmedding said, “is who will be the fourth guy?”
Without naming names, Schmedding said he can draw on a large group of younger players to fill his depth chart.
CORNERBACKS – After earning all-Big Sky honors last year, Lee “plans on bumping it up another notch and being an all-American this year.”
Lee (5-9, 170) has the work ethic to back that up. “I have to play all four quarters and focus on finishing,” said Lee, who relishes facing the Eagles’ vaunted receiving corps in practice.
So far, Lee has made it easy for Valeria to break into the EWU coaching staff.
“What impresses me about T.J. is his vision,” Valeria said. “He sees things naturally without me having to coach him – and his work ethic.”
But if Lee offers an exclamation mark on one side of the field, the other corner position is a big question mark as spring drills end.
Valeria said three players are “ahead of the pack” to replace Alden Gibbs.
Junior Ron Baines (5-10, 185) is “aggressive with good foot speed and cover skils from day one,” Valeria said, while junior Bo Schuetzle (5-11, 190) also has been in the mix despite minor injuries.
Senior Domonic Shepperd (6-0, 190) “also could be right in there,” Valeria said, but Shepperd popped a hamstring on the first day of practice.