The wind was gusting to 30 mph at a recent Eastern Washington football practice, a nice confidence-booster for the young Eagles kickers.
As redshirt freshman Roldan Alcobendas and walk-on Trevor Merritt were blasting the ball past the track at the south end of Roos Field, the coaches were sizing them up in what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting position battles on the roster.
“It’s going about as I expected,” said special teams coach Jeff Schmedding, who lost Kevin Miller to graduation.
The heir apparent is Alcobendas, a 2013 recruit from Camas, Wash., who tore his ACL that same year in a high school soccer game. “We’re very excited abour him, and from what we’re seeing, he’s doing a good job of rehabbing and should be close to 100 percent,” Schmedding said.
Also in camp is Merritt, a redshirt sophomore from Renton, Wash.
The Eagles didn’t sign any high school kickers this year, but are rumored to be looking at adding another kicker/punter this summer.
Punter Jake Miller also is a possibility for kickoffs, and saw action at that position in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Judging by last year, the eventual winner won’t be unduly tested on field goal tries: the Eagles attempted just eight last year, the fewest since the school moved up to Division I in 1984.
On the other hand, Eastern attempted 79 extra points last year, the most in school history.
Holder: Few schools can put an All-American quarterback on special teams, but that’s what the Eagles have in returning holder Vernon Adams. “He’s done a very good job, and he’s very athletic, but gives us some leeway to do other things on extra points,” Schmedding said.
Long snapper: Junior college transfer Cory Alcantar, a 6-foor-4, 240-pounder from Yucaipa, Calif., is back for his second year as the snapper on punts and placekicks. “He’s done a tremendous job for us,” Schmedding said.
Punting: Jake Miller, a 6-5, 225-pounder senior from Central Valley High, is coming off a year that included a 42.5-yard average per kick. On the other hand, opponents’ return average went up sharply, from 9.4 yards to 11.6. “He has a great leg,” Schmedding said of Miller, “and he made some strides last year in situational punts,” including sky and directional punts.
Punt returns: Last year, Ashton Clark’s senior experience – knowing when to take a chance and when not to – made a big difference in the Eagles boosting their return average by a stunning 3 yards a return, from 6.7 to 9.8. “We made a lot of strides,” said Schmedding, who has several choices for Clark’s replacement. All are receivers, including All-American Cooper Kupp, Blair Bomber and Nic Sblendorio. “I think the guys we have coming up, they can do the same thing,” Schmedding said.
Kickoff coverage: This unit shined last year, cutting opponents’ return average from 22.7 yards to 19.4. According to Schmedding, that was partly because “the guys really came out of the gate with a better understanding of how to play.” He looks for more of the same this season.
Kickoff returns: Conversely, the Eagles’ return yards were down as well, from 23.5 yards to 19.7, partly because they failed to find the end zone in 50 chances. Moreover, Schmedding said, they faced a large number of short kicks, which lead to shorter returns, even though the resulting field position was acceptable.
Regardless, “this will be a major emphasis this fall,” Schmedding said.
Wide receiver Shaquille Hill is expected to be the Eagles’ primary kick returner, as he was the past two seasons.