Last weekend, Bo Levi Mitchell was reminded why he came to Eastern Washington University in the first place.
Loyalty, the kind that brought Mitchell to Roos Field last weekend to watch his brother Cory catch a few balls at practice – the same kind of loyalty he repaid Eastern three years ago.
Even as he signed out of high school with Southern Methodist in the spring of 2008, “Eastern was loyal to me,” Mitchell said. “They said they would follow me throughout my career, and they did.”
Two years later, Mitchell lost his starting quarterbacking job at SMU, but found something even better at the little FCS school in Cheney: a national title, the Walter Payton Award and a big boost toward a professional career.
“But most of all,” Mitchell said, “I got to play ball with my brother.”
Down, but not out
Dropping down, they call it, when a college football player leaves the big time for the not-so-big.
For the skeptical, it implies some sort of failure by the athlete: poor play, poor luck or poor choices. The player is looking for a second chance, dropping down a level to a school that is eager to catch him on the way down and elevate its program at the same time.
One Pacific Northwest school is doing just that. Ten are on the roster this spring, the most of any school in the Big Sky Conference. Soon those same skeptics will be calling it Dropdown U., another pejorative which really isn’t fair to the hard-working players and coaches at … Portland State.
That the Vikings are the dropdown kings of the West is just one twist in a misunderstood story of football redemption in the Football Championship Subdivision.
It’s also a story that has helped define the program at Eastern Washington, which came into even higher relief this month with the arrival of former UCLA safety Tevin McDonald.
Why they left
After the whirlwind courtship of recruiting, and the solemn vows of letter-of-intent day, everybody wants the marriage to succeed. To have a scholarship and to hold on to the football.
Unfortunately for running back Demitrius Bronson, he didn’t. In the 2009 Apple Cup, his Washington Huskies beat Washington State 30-0, but Bronson, a redshirt freshman, fumbled twice – on the same drive.
“That really put a damper on things,” Bronson said. “I lost confidence.”
It didn’t help that he had been recruited by former coach Tyrone Willingham and not by the new man in charge, Steve Sarkisian. “He gave me a chance,” Bronson said of Sarkisian. “But as a running back, you have to be trusted with the ball.”
Barely three months later, UW defensive tackle Andru Pulu, then 18, lost his cool and assaulted another man at an off-campus party. He was suspended two days later and eventually convicted of second-degree assault and suspended by Sarkisian.
“I brought shame upon myself and my family,” Pulu said at the time. He wouldn’t play in another game until the fall of 2012.
Blair Bomber’s story at Washington State is far more typical. The receiver from Lynden, Wash., served on the scout squad in 2010, then suffered an ACL injury and didn’t play at all in 2011. New coach Mike Leach and his staff “brought in guys they liked, and I was trying to get healthy the whole time,” Bomber said.
Zackary Johnson, an offensive lineman from Stanwood, Wash., found himself pushed down the depth chart even as he started in WSU’s spring game in 2012.
Punter Jake Miller’s stay in Pullman was even shorter; the Central Valley High School star redshirted for one year before transferring to Eastern. McDonald’s troubles at UCLA were well-chronicled by the L.A. media: positive drug tests, three of them. That cost the two-year starter a spot in the Holiday Bowl. Three months later he was dismissed from the team.
Christian Hudnell, a safety from Sacramento who signed with Kentucky in 2009, played sparingly and missed his family. “I wanted to get closer to them,” Hudnell said.
Why they came
If letter-of-intent day is akin to a wedding, the transfer process is more of a prolonged job interview. Sometimes the position is full, no matter how qualified the player may be.
Even if there’s an opening, he’d better have some good references; if he has any baggage, it will get a close inspection.
“I think what people don’t realize,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said, “is there have been a ton of deal-breakers that the media and the public haven’t heard about.
“I want us to be that welcoming kind of program, but we have to look at several things: Does he fit our needs at that position, will he fit socially, and why he wasn’t a good fit at his old school?”
In McDonald’s case, several coaches on Baldwin’s staff have Southern California connections, and McDonald’s character was vetted all the way down to the high school level.
“We take very few of them, but when we do, there’s a lot of due diligence on our part to make sure that it’s the right fit,” Baldwin said.
While the Eagles have gained attention for some high-profile dropdown players, all but two of the current group are from the state of Washington – a byproduct of Eastern’s emphasis on in-state recruiting at the high school level (the Eagles have no junior college transfers on their spring roster). Both Pulu, from Federal Way, and Bronson, of Kent, were on the Eagles’ radar before they went to UW.
“We’ve always recruited heavily out of (the Puget Sound area),” Baldwin said, including Federal Way. In Pulu’s case, “it was a perfect storm. We had a lot of success that year (winning the FCS title in 2010), and he wanted to stay in state.”
Weston, a UW redshirt in 2010, also saw an opportunity for more playing time, and transferred at the same time. Said Pulu: “I’m just really thankful that the coaches gave me a second chance here. They could have turned their back on me, but they welcomed me with open arms.”
Meanwhile, Bronson said he left UW on good terms, but was adrift until he contacted then-EWU assistant Tory Hunter. Until then, “I really didn’t know that much about (Eastern).”
Hudnell did his homework. “I was researching a bunch of schools,” he said. “I sent them a tape, and they said they wanted to take a look at me.”
Welcome to Cheney
Culturally and competitively, many dropdown transfers aren’t sure what to expect in Cheney. Most have traded Seattle, Sacramento or SoCal for something much more intimate.
“I felt like a family again, which I really didn’t feel like before,” Bronson said. “And that made me feel like I can make another run at this.”
Hudnell said he “liked the community aspect, and how everybody’s really together. That really settled in with me when I visited, and that got me to appreciate the community.”
And if the newcomers didn’t have the proper appreciation for the quality of football, they learned quickly enough. Of the eight dropdown players, only Pulu, McDonald and Miller are near-certain bets to start this fall.
Last year, another heralded dropdown player, quarterback Kyle Padron, followed in Mitchell’s footsteps until he was supplanted after two games by redshirt freshman Vernon Adams.
“We really haven’t had anyone come in with that type of attitude,” Baldwin said. “Subconsciously they may feel that way, but once they get here, they realize that this is a little closer to being on par (with FBS.)”
Bronson was just thankful to get a second chance: “I certainly didn’t expect anyting to be handed to me.”