Last year, the Eagles could count on the elusiveness of All-American Vernon Adams Jr. at quarterback. Now the reins are in the hands of dropback passer Jordan West.
Similarly, it was speedy Quincy Forte and Mario Brown at running back. This year, the ball will be in the hands of Jabari Wilson and Jalen Moore, who offer more power but less shiftiness than their predecessors.
A loss of quickness in the backfield could make the Eagles less explosive and more predictable.
On the other hand, the coaches installed an offense that coach Beau Baldwin said “should make us tougher to defend.”
In West, a former walk-on, the Eagles have a veteran quarterback (he started four games last year when Adams has hurt), who stands tall in the pocket (he’s 6-foot-4, after all), with deceptive speed and an arm that some say is stronger than Adams’.
West’s numbers last year were solid: 86 for 142 for 1,072 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception.
There’s more uncertainty at running back. Both Wilson and Moore have missed significant time to injury and haven’t been a factor in the passing game, but have come through with big games in the clutch. Moore took the pressure off West in the latter’s first start, going off for a career-high 133 yards at Southern Utah. A few weeks later, Wilson had a career day in the regular-season finale at Portland State, gaining 124 yards in Adams’ first game back from injury.
The new 4-2-5 defense
The biggest change this year comes on defense, in the form of new coordinator Jeff Schmedding and the switch to a 4-2-5 defense.
The change from a 4-3 is a response to past playoff failures, when opponents (notably Sam Houston State in 2012 and Illinois State last year) “spread us out,” according to coach Beau Baldwin. Schmedding installed the new scheme last winter, and by all accounts, the players and staff have bought in wholeheartedly.
“It’s a lot of fun to play,” said senior Todd Raynes, who was moved from safety to the new roverback position coser to the line of scrimmage.
“It feels like we’re running downhill more,” said safety Zach Bruce.
On the plus side, the scheme puts more speed on the field, allows defensive backs to play more aggressively and offers more chances to disrupt the quarterback’s timing.
On the debit side, the defense is more susceptible to short passes behind the linebackers and puts less beef behind the defensive line.
The players certainly aren’t staying put. Unlike the 4-3 Cover 2 scheme, the nickel emphasizes pressure on the quarterback. With five defensive backs, the pressure can come from more directions.
Another tough schedule
The Eagles never shrink from a challenge, but this year’s schedule looks more daunting than most.
On paper, the opener at FBS powerhouse Oregon appears to be one of the toughest games in school history. A week later, the Eagles fly to Northern Iowa, which last year defeated FCS finalists North Dakota State and Illinois State at the raucous16,324-seat UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. A week after that, Eastern hosts Big Sky co-favorite Montana State in a game that doesn’t count in the conference standings, but could have big implications in the race for the postseason.
Other big challenges include an Oct. 10 home game against Cal Poly’s triple-option offense; a trip the following week to Idaho State, which is loaded at almost every position except quarterback; and a Nov. 14 visit to Montana.
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