At Eastern Washington, they don’t call it rebuilding any more – even with 11 starters to replace, even with big holes to fill at cornerback and on the interior offensive line and even with two new assistants to break in.
Winning back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles will do that for you, Eagles football coach Beau Baldwin said as his program enters spring ball on Friday with a view toward solidifying its position among the top programs in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We should never have to use that word – rebuilding,” said Baldwin, who’s coming off a 13-2 season that included a second straight appearance in the FCS semifinals and the school’s first 8-0 Big Sky finish.
“That’s not taking away anything (from the departing players), but our feeling is that the next guys coming up played a lot of snaps. We have a confident group, and they understand what it takes to win, even in the offseason,” said Baldwin, who is 56-22 in six seasons as head coach.
The tone was set this winter, Baldwin said, when instead of hanging their heads over another near-miss in the semifinals, the players hit the weight room under new strength and conditioning coach Amir Owens.
Baldwin said results from winter conditioning have been encouraging, especially movement tests.
“I’ve been very impressed,” Baldwin said of Owens and his staff.
Moving forward, fans can expect the Eagles to focus on several key areas this month as they blend roughly 90 returning letter winners and newcomers:
• Develop a new generation of cornerbacks to replace Ronald Baines, Bo Schuetzle and All-American T.J. Lee.
• Build the right combination of depth on the interior offensive line, where the Eagles lose a trio of players with a combined 111 starts.
• Continue to hone the passing game while identifying a new backup quarterback and bringing in a new wide receivers coach in EWU alum Nick Edwards.
• Work on improving two areas – turnovers and red-zone efficiency on both sides of the ball – that Baldwin sees as crucial to taking the next step as a program.
“Yes, we want to get a lot of things in, but we really want to improve and see some competitive battles occur,” said Baldwin, whose club is less than five months away from the earliest season opener in school history, Aug. 23 against Sam Houston State.
Eastern’s biggest strength going into 2014 is its prolific offense, specifically a group of skill-position players who are almost unmatched in FCS. All-American Vernon Adams enters his redshirt junior season as the pre-eminent quarterback in the country after a season in which he completed 319 of 486 passes for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns.
Adams will be joined in camp by redshirt sophomore Jordan West and redshirt freshman Conner Richardson, neither of whom saw game action last year.
Receiver Cooper Kupp also was an All-American after catching 93 passes for 1,691 yards and 21 scores, and he has plenty of help despite the graduation of Ashton Clark.
Throw in perhaps the deepest running back corps in school history and it’s safe to say that the Eagles will be both balanced and prolific.
The biggest challenge will be replacing center Ashton Miller and guards Steven Forgette and Brandon Murphy, but Baldwin returns 12 veterans on the offensive line; better yet, most of the returnees have game experience thanks to heavy substitions last year.
Says Baldwin: “We felt like we had 10 guys who could be starters.”
It’s the same story on the defensive line, which loses starters Andru Pulu, Will Katoa and Anthony Larry but may not miss a beat thanks a deep rotation. End Samson Ebukam was a freshman All-American last year, and classmate Matthew Sommer looks ready for more playing time alongside veterans Evan Day and Dylan Zylstra.
The linebacking corps – 11 strong – also looks to be a strength with the return of leading tackler Ronnie Hamlin and veterans Cody McCarthy, Albert Havili and Miquiyah Zamora.
The biggest concern – on the entire squad – is in the secondary. Safeties Tevin McDonald and Jordan Tonani are back from injury and Todd Raynes gained valuable experience when injuries struck the unit last fall, but run support was a problem, especially in the playoffs.
The Eagles lose 101 career starts at cornerback; they also lose Lee, a three-time all-Big Sky selection who was outstanding in coverage and run support.
The spring roster includes 14 defensive backs, including experienced corners Frank Cange, Miles Weatheroy, and D’londo Tucker. More wait in the wings.
“The challenge,” Baldwin said, “is to bring the young guys along in spring, so that position will be big from a competition standpoint.”
Their development may be a key to improving a so-so turnover margin since the 2010 season. Last year, the Eagles were plus-2, the same as in 2012.
On special teams, the Eagles return punter Jake Miller and long snapper Cory Alcantar, but will have just one kicker in camp next month: freshman Roldan Alcobendas, who missed the 2013 season with an injury.