The best advice the Eastern Washington football players could get this week? Be yourself.
To a man, the top-ranked Eagles understood that game-day adjustments may the biggest factor in who wins the season opener Saturday against Sam Houston State.
With a new coach, just seven returning starters and new looks on both sides of the ball, the 17th-ranked Bearkats offer a challenge that defies the film room and will force the Eastern coaches and players to think on their feet and do what they do best.
“It’s really a guessing game to start, so the difference will our ability to adjust to them and their ability to adjust to us,” Eastern safety Tevin McDonald said before practice Tuesday afternoon at Roos Field.
A year ago, the Eastern defense was simply outmanned by a sophisticated Sam Houston State option offense that had all the right parts: an All-American running back, a savvy senior quarterback and even a receiver who lined up under center in a wildcat formation.
All are gone, and so is the coach, Willie Fritz, who took the head job at Football Subdivision newcomer Georgia Southern. New Bearkat coach K.C. Keeler is one year removed from a successful 11-year run at Delaware that included the epic 20-19 loss to the Eagles in the FCS title game.
Arriving just two weeks before national letter of intent day, Keeler largely disdained the four-year route and brought in 20 FBS and junior college transfers; 12 of them are on the Bearkats’ two-deep roster.
Keeler has scrapped the option, installing an uptempo offense with three wideouts. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jared Johnson will hand off to senior running back Keshawn Hill, who last year ran for 538 yards and eight touchdowns as the number two back behind Timothy Flanders.
“We have the talent, but we have to get the moving parts going in the right direction,” Keeler said.
No matter the direction, they will move quickly. Keeler’s stated goal is to run at least 100 offensive plays per game; that will make it more difficult for the Eagle defense to substitute, but otherwise “won’t be a problem for us,” Eastern defensive coordinator John Graham said Tuesday.
That’s because Graham’s unit faces an up-tempo offense every day in practice, and a quarterback in Vernon Adams who is far more mobile that Johnson. Still, “We have to try to make some educated guesses as to what they’ll do,” Graham said.
On offense, the Eagles will face some new faces, but will see the same aggressive man coverage that helped give the Bearkats a 35-0 halftime lead in the FCS semifinal game in 2012 they eventually won 45-42.
Of the 20 transfers, six landed in the secondary, which Adams hopes will translate into some coverage mistakes.
“We’re excited to get this work done – it’s going to be a fun one,” Adams said.
EWU linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, who had missed two weeks with a bruised left foot, was back in pads Tuesday. … Eastern alum and sports talk celebrity Colin Cowherd will help kick off the season at the EWU Kickoff Celebration on Friday, at River Park Square in downtown Spokane. The evening begins at 5 p.m. with a pep rally in the atrium at River Park Square followed by a celebration on the parking garage rooftop until 9 p.m. Admission is $10 and includes a full-service beer garden and live music. Food will be available to purchase a la carte.
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