When asked last week about the “chemistry” of his offensive line, assistant coach Aaron Best replied, “Do you have a periodic table of the elements?” It was a cerebral answer, but then he is the team’s academic coordinator.
The Eagles have enough elements – 16 players in camp – “that I’ve got more able bodies this year than I’ve had the ability to coach,” added Best, who says he also has a strong nucleus of starters, including team captain Will Post at right tackle.
There’s a silver lining in the dark cloud of injuries that hung over the offensive line last year, and the Eagles are hoping to cash in on the experience gained by several new players. “The guys got a lot of games under their belt last year,” Best said.
The line may also be a key in rebalancing the offense, which last year gained 73 percent of its yards through the air.
On the first day of fall camp, head coach Beau Baldwin was asked what it would be like to have three 1,000-yard receivers in the same year. He scratched his head and politely replied that the running game might suffer.
But anything is possible with wide receivers Nicholas Edwards (1,250 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, Greg Herd (67 catches, seven TDs) and Brandon Kaufman (injured for most of last year but who had 1,214 yards and 15 TDs in 2010).
All have won All-American honors.
The “Trio,” as they’re known, is arguably the top group in the Big Sky Conference, if not the country. “I’ve never had anyone like this,” says EWU receivers coach Junior Adams. “They don’t compete against the cornerbacks of Montana State or Weber State. They compete against each other.”
Save the date
Last year, the Eagles almost beat Washington. This season, right out of the gate, they get two shots at Football Bowl Subdivision teams Idaho and Washington State. The money is good, and EWU has a shot at both games. But last year, they left a lot of emotion and energy behind at Husky Stadium; that, combined with injuries and some bad luck resulted in an 0-4 start.
The difference this year is a well-placed bye after the WSU game and before the Big Sky opener at Weber State on Sept. 22. That should offset the psychological ups and downs of the back-to-back trips to the Palouse and put the team mentally right for the games that matter.
Speaking of which, the Big Sky Conference has 13 members for football this year, but each team plays just eight conference games. The “misses” are just as important as the games you play. Eastern didn’t catch a break there, missing Northern Colorado (0-11 last year), Idaho State (2-9) and Northern Arizona (4-7).
One scheduling quirk that could loom large: the Eagles host highly regarded Big Sky newcomer Cal Poly on Nov.12 in a game that doesn’t count in the standings, but could mean a lot if both teams are in contention for the FCS playoffs.
The ‘wow’ factor
The difference between a national championship team and a 6-5 season? Injuries, for sure, but more often it’s what you don’t see, like big plays such as takeaways and long returns.
The 2010 FCS champions were a greedy bunch, taking 47 fumbles and interceptions. That number plummeted last year to 16, including just seven picks.
“We have to do better this year,” said all-conference cornerback T.J. Lee III. But injuries at linebacker and the line allowed opponents to ball-control the Eagles with runs and short passes and complete 64.1 percent of their passes.
In 2010, the Eagles scored eight touchdowns on returns, including kickoffs (three), punts (two), interceptions (one), and fumbles (two).
The Eagles added three new assistants last spring and changed some responsibilities in the process. First on board was Brian Strandley, a former defensive coordinator at Idaho State who did something few coaches attempt: move to the other side of the ball. Strandley works with the tight ends and may have the best on-field “football voice” in the conference. Then there’s Cherokee Valeria, a soft-spoken “teacher” who took over the cornerbacks to give colleague Jeff Schmedding more time to work with safeties and special teams. The last to arrive was new running backs coach Kiel McDonald, who brings a truckload of agility drill equipment to every practice.