Fall term is still six weeks away, but chemistry class is already in session at Eastern Washington University.
The elements are combined on the football practice fields behind Reese Court, where professor Aaron Best and his 18 students hope it all comes together in a series of controlled explosions, roughly every Saturday between now and early January.
Best, otherwise known as the Eagles’ offensive line coach, may have one of the top units in the Big Sky Conference, perhaps the entire Football Championship Subdivision.
Eastern returns four of five starters and can count on quality depth across the line, but ultimate success depends on how it all comes together.
“I think that’s what fall camp is for – chemistry,” said Best, now entering his 13th year in Cheney. “Just because guys have played next to each other, you can’t necessarily say the chemistry is there.”
But it doesn’t hurt. “Since we’ve had a whole season together, it helps a lot,” said center Ashton Miller, a 6-foot-2, 300-pound senior who’s flanked by classmates Brandon Murphy (6-4, 305) and Steven Forgette (6-4, 300), the latter a preseason All-American at left guard.
“It’s good to be honored, but you’ve got to keep working on it,” Forgette said.
Last season, left tackle Clay DeBord was one of the biggest surprises, earning a starting spot as a redshirt freshman. Now a 6-6, 290-pound sophomore, DeBord says he still has “plenty to work on, but I feel like I’m progressing.
“I feel we could be one of the best units in the Big Sky,” DeBord said Thursday morning before practice.
That’s despite the graduation of right tackle Will Post, who finished his career as an All-American. Best hasn’t decided on a replacement, but he has three weeks until the season opener at Oregon State on Aug. 31.
“I don’t have an honest answer for that one,” Best said. “It could be one guy, or it could be by committee.”
The Eagles have plenty of talent in that committee of 18; indeed, Best said he may have the most quality depth “in a long time.”
That depth got a big boost in the offseason from Washington State transfer Jake Rodgers, a 6-6, 320-pound junior out of Spokane’s Shadle Park High School. Last season, Rodgers started all 12 games for the Cougars, either at guard or tackle, so he adds big-game experience as well.
Comparing the two programs, Rodgers said, “I feel like there’s more of an emphasis (at Eastern) on not necessarily doing a ton of work just to do it, but there’s a lot of focus on doing it right and getting in a ton of quality reps.
“The coaches are all on the same page, and understand what the ultimate goal is and how to get there as a team,” Rodgers said.
Head coach Beau Baldwin has the same perspective.
“You can’t go 11-3 without an O-line performing that way,” Baldwin said, adding that the unit’s experience and depth allows “you to expand on what you want to do from a game-plan standpoint.”
Assessing Wednesday’s opening day of practice, Baldwin said he was pleased with the “mental retention from last spring, which we like to see.” … I thought there were a lot of good things done yesterday, a lot of mental retention from last spring, which we like to see. Still, we have to harp on the little things every day; that’s more important than any schemes you put in.”
The Eagles are down one staff position after the departure of strength and conditioning coach Nate Brookreson, who’s now the director of Olympic sports at the University of Memphis. For now, veteran trainer Amir Owens and two graduate assistants will take over Brookreson’s assignments. “Amir has a great relationship with the guys, so I’m excited for him,” Baldwin said. “We’re also excited for Nate – he’s done so much for us here.” Baldwin spent much of Thursday’s practice appraising the placement kick units, including the holders, long snappers and the kickers themselves. All three positions will be manned by new players this season.
The Eagles will practice again today at 9 a.m.