Having something to prove – but not too much – may be the best situation for the Eastern Washington football team, which opens five weeks of spring practice on Thursday.
The Eagles are coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history – 11 wins, a Big Sky Conference title and a spot in the FCS semifinals – but have plenty of opportunities to improve.
“We had a great season, and we appreciate the great things we were able to do,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “Our guys really took that mindset that it was a great year, but that we want even more.”
Fans can expect the Eagles to focus on several key areas even as they blend 83 returning lettermen and newcomers in preparing for the first 12-game regular season in school history:
• An intact returning coaching staff that Baldwin says has allowed a smooth offseason that will help the Eagles expand their play-calling – “more than we’ve been able to in the past,” Baldwin said.
• A new-look receiving corps that should benefit from a stable offensive line, a better running game and the return of presumptive starting quarterback Vernon Adams.
• A chance to work on some “different looks on defense” and create more pre-snap confusion for opposing teams.
• Making the most of an extended spring schedule, which begins Thursday, runs through the Red-White Game on April 27 and continues the following week with two more practices and a scrimmage.
In the process, Baldwin and his coaches are looking forward to the “next man up” mantra of players stepping in to the roles vacated by nine departing starters, including three each at wide receiver and defensive line, and two at linebacker.
“It’s very exciting,” Baldwin said. “Because we want them to have a little chip on their shoulders, because people are going to be talking about who we’re losing.
“We want them to say, ‘We don’t care about that – we’re going to show them what we’re made of.’ ”
In some ways, the Eagles are already ahead of the curve, returning four of five starters on the offensive line, the entire running back corps and Adams, who was a revelation last year as a redshirt freshman. In nine games as a starter and three as a sub, Adams completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 1,961 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“The challenge for him to keep competing like he’s a freshman,” Baldwin said. “I also want him to take strides as leader.”
At the same time, Baldwin was pleased with the improved running game. He’s hoping for more game-to-game-consistency.
And while the Eagles lose receivers Brandon Kaufman, Nick Edwards and Greg Herd, they welcome back senior Ashton Clark, who last year finished with 49 catches for 650 yards and five touchdowns, including a career-high 11 catches against Southern Utah. Eastern also returns three other returning letterwinners – senior Daniel Johnson, junior Cory Mitchell and sophomore Shaquille Hill – as well as a pair of redshirt freshmen in Cooper Kupp and Keylin Huddleston.
On defense, the Eagles lose three of four starters on the line, but return tackle Andru Pulu and 2011 starter Anthony Larry, who missed last season because of academic problems. “He’s had a great offseason, and in the classroom,” Baldwin said.
In the secondary, Jeff Minnerly will be missed at safety, but the other three spots are intact. All-American T.J. Lee III returns at cornerback.
The biggest losses are at linebacker. Not only do the Eagles lose starters Zach Johnson (an All-American in 2010) and Tyler Washburn, they will be without super-sub Grant Williams and backups Chase King and Rusty Haehl.
Ronnie Hamlin, the team’s leading tackler with 136, is back at the strong inside position.
“It’s similar to the receiving position,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to be a position where I expect some competition, and it’s also a situation where you’re going to need the DBs and the D-line to pick them up at times.”
Another change this year is the spring schedule itself. With the spring quarter starting only this week and the Red-White Spring Game scheduled for April 27, Baldwin felt it was too difficult to cram 15 practice sessions and scrimmages into 23 days. Therefore, as he did in 2009, Baldwin and his staff will hold two practices and a scrimmage the week after the spring game.