EWU spring football: Eagles used practices to find identity
Inroads made in replacing 11 starters
Eastern Washington football coach Beau Baldwin doesn’t sweat the small stuff, but he certainly notices it.
Fresh off a second straight Big Sky Conference title, Baldwin instead reveled this spring about how his players “were continually finding small victories, when with all their success, you sometimes take the small things for granted.”
The result, Baldwin said, was a series of 14 high-energy practices that also went far in “figuring out the identity of our team.”
Along the way, the Eagles also figured out the identity of some replacements for 11 departed starters, but most of those questions will be answered before the season opener Aug. 23 against Sam Houston State.
The biggest questions still loom at the two cornerback spots, where Baldwin said he was impressed by a competition that saw “four to six guys who are all capable of making plays.”
Along the way, Baldwin and corners coach Cherokee Valeria focused on technical improvement, not the outcome of a given play. “Coach Valeria, and all of our coaches, are really good at that, with a progression in how they’re teaching – to not let guys skimp over the details.”
The same goes for the offense, a record-setting group that some people feel could be even better this year. “That’s fun to talk about, that we’ve created that expectation – we’re very confident,” Baldwin said.
Here’s a position-by-position look at how the Eagles shape up after spring camp:
Quarterback: With 4,994 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes, All-American quarterback Vernon Adams exceeded almost everyone’s expectations last year, and there’s no reason to doubt a repeat performance. He’s added 10 pounds but hasn’t lost a step, and has a year of experience in the Eagles’ balanced offense. Backup Jordan West, a redshirt sophomore, impressed Baldwin “with how the game is slowing down for him, which takes time.” West appears to be the front-runner for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but Conner Richardson also is in the mix.
Running backs: The Eagles are as deep as anyone can remember, returning seniors Quincy Forte (1,208 yards, 12 TDs) and Mario Brown (482 yards, 4 TDs) along with talented underclassmen Jabari Wilson, Jalen Moore and D.J. Martin.
Wide receivers: With All-American Cooper Kupp (93 catches, 1,291 yards, 21 TDs) seizing the attention of opposing defenses, expect this deep unit to thrive again. That includes veterans Cory Mitchell, Shaquille Hill, and Blair Bomber, plus youngsters Kendrick Bourne and Nic Sblendorio. Depth is a minor issue, but new talent waits in the wings.
Tight ends: With only three veterans in spring camp, this group got plenty of experience in honing the running game. Jake Withell, Terry Jackson II and Zach Wimberly have talent and experience, but they’ll need more bodies in the fall.
Offensive line: As assistant coach Aaron Best likes to say, chemisty can wait until the fall. In the meantime, there’s a surplus of talent at tackle, including returning starters Clay DeBord and Cassidy Curtis, plus veteran T.J. Boatright. That means a probable move to guard for 320-pound Jake Rodgers, which at the same time will beef up what is otherwise a smallish interior line. Senior Jase Butorac will take over at center, while senior Aaron Neary had an impressive spring, according to Baldwin, and could start at guard.
Defensive line: The Eagles graduated some serious beef inside, but return a deep, athletic lineup led by tackles Dylan Zylstra and Matthew Sommer; and ends Evan Day, Samson Ebukam and Zackary Johnson. Senior end and former linebacker John Goldwire impressed Baldwin with his tenacity in overcoming injuries to compete for playing time. There’s plenty of depth, with senior Ashton Boothroyd, junior Jordan Pulu and walk-on Brandon Pritchett inside.
Linebackers: What a difference a year makes. Last fall, the Eagles were thin at ’backer, but return Buck Buchanan candidate Ronnie Hamlin and steady senior Cody McCarthy, along with sophomores Albert Havili and Miquiyah Zamora. Redshirt freshmen Jake Gall and Joe Kreifels “showed up qute a bit” this spring, Baldwin said.
Defensive backs: The coaches will have plenty to choose from this fall at cornerback, including veterans D’londo Tucker, and Frank Cange, plus youngsters Victor Gamboa, Jake Hoffman and Moe Roberts and two Prop players who won’t be eligible to practice until fall. The inexperience at corner is compensated by a deep, talented group of safeties, including UCLA transfer Tevin McDonald, junior Todd Raynes and veterans Jordan Tonani, Isaiah Jenkins and Miles Weatheroy; and Zach Bruce, a redshirt sophomore from University High who played last year.
Special teams: Baldwin said he doesn’t fret over the inexperience at placekicker; he’s been through this before. He said redshirt freshman Roldan Alcobendas performed well in spring, but said he may add at least one more kicker before fall. In the meantime, punter Jake Miller looked strong on kickoffs. Kupp may see even more balls as the new punt returner, with Bomber and Sblendorio also in the mix.