The smile on Mike Kramer’s face these days is unforced, enduring and so wide it looks like the corners of his mouth have been pinned to his ears.
His Eastern Washington University football team, which returns 36 letterwinners including 15 starters is ranked No. 13 in The Sporting News preseason Division I-AA poll with a chance to make a big impact on the postseason playoff picture.
The Eagles have eight defensive starters who are in either their fourth or fifth year in the program. Senior quarterback Harry Leons seems to have recovered completely from the knee injury that sidelined him for the final six games of the 1996 season.
And Kramer finally has his cast of talented, battle-tested players back on the practice field where they can start tinkering in an effort to improve on last fall’s 6-5 finish.
Eastern, picked by coaches and the media to finish third in the tradition ally tough Big Sky Conference, opened fall camp Monday with a pair of business-like, 2-hour practices that delighted the boss.
“This is fun, really fun,” Kramer said following an initial morning workout that went off as smoothly as a mid-season practice. “When you come out of the huddle and your four defensive lineman and three linebackers are all fifth- or fourth-year guys, and both of your safties have been around since I still had hair to comb, it’s a big advantage.”
With Leons and sophomore Griffin Garske, who started the final six games last season, alternating under center, the Eagles’ offense jumped directly into the middle of the play book and looked sharp in half-speed work against the veteran defenders.
Still, with all of the savvy his team displayed, Kramer admitted there is one enormous question that has to be answered.
“We’ve really challenged our guys character-wise to find out if we’re a good enough football team to challenge for national honors,” Kramer explained. “Physically, we are; experience-wise, we are, and talentwise, we are. But mentally? That’s a huge question and one I don’t think we’ll answer for a while.”
Kramer said Leons has been declared “100 percent healthy” after undergoing off-season knee surgery, but juniors Tom Ackerman and Justin Wochnick - both projected starters in the offensive line - have been less resilient and were noticeably hampered by bad knees Monday.
Ackerman, who had his second major knee surgery last fall after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in the second game of the season, underwent a second operation on the same knee during the winter and won’t be back at full strength until mid-season, at best.
Wochnick underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee recently and could also be out until October.
In addition, backup wide receiver Rich Naccarato had back surgery last week and will be out at least until the first of November.
New QB recruit
The Eagles picked up another young quarterback during the summer when Chris Samms, who prepped at Kent Meridian, nixed his plan to walk on at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan and accepted a scholarship offer from Kramer.
Samms was given the scholarship originally awarded to Jason Lewis, a walk-on quarterback from Mead. Lewis quit football on the advice of his doctor because of a narrowing of the spinal column.
Kramer said Lewis will be a student coach at Eastern this fall.
Samms joins Scott Mitchell, from Kamiakin High School, as the Eagles’ two rookie quarterbacks.
“I’m really happy with our two pups,” Kramer said after his first look at the two freshmen Monday.
The Eagles will practice in full pads for the first time this afternoon at 3. … Saturday’s first scrimmage, originally scheduled for 3 p.m., has been moved back to 6:35 to correspond with the starting time of Eastern’s first two home games against NAIA opponents Rocky Mountain (Sept. 6) and Eastern Oregon (Sept. 13). … Backup weakside linebacker and special teams standout Jeff Pilkington, a sophomore from Mead, has quit the team, Kramer said.
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