It feels like the good – but not-so-old – days around the Eastern Washington University campus this fall.
That would seem to bode well for the Eagles’ football team, which opens its 2009 season hoping to eventually have its NCAA-levied ban on postseason play lifted and make another Football Championship Subdivision playoff run like it did in 2007.
Eastern finished 9-4 and made it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs that year, losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State 38-35. But that impressive run helped bring about a coaching change that, despite all efforts to keep it seamless, simply wasn’t.
Beau Baldwin, who coordinated EWU’s high-powered offense in 2007 before taking over as the head coach at Central Washington for one season, was brought back to take the Eagles’ reins from Paul Wulff, who was hired away by Washington State University.
In announcing Baldwin’s return, Eastern’s athletic director Bill Chaves pointed to Baldwin’s familiarity with the program and his own desire to stay the course Wulff has charted. But despite everyone’s best intentions, the Eagles took several different tacks en route to last fall’s disappointing 6-5 finish.
“Anytime there’s change, no matter how slight, it’s difficult for coaches and players, alike,” Baldwin said. “Even though there was some familiarity with some of us, a lot of us were in different roles than we had been in the past, and that caused some problems.
“But I can definitely sense a different feeling this year than I did last, just as far as having players and coaches on the same page.”
Baldwin isn’t the only one who has noticed that change.
“Just as a team, I feel like were more prepared both physically and mentally for the season,” said Matt Nichols, the Eagles’ record-setting senior quarterback and fourth-year starter. “It feels more like it did heading into our 2007 season when we went 9-4 and made it to the playoffs.
“Last year we had a new coaching staff and new systems on offense and defense, so things were a little hazy going into the season and no one seemed sure how things were going to work out. But this year feels a lot more comfortable. Guys have worked a lot harder in the offseason, and we just feel more together as a team.”
The Eagles will open the season at Woodward Field on Saturday afternoon with a 12:05 non-conference matchup against Western Oregon. They will do so as a veteran team that is ranked in the top-20 of nearly every preseason FCS poll and picked to finish third behind Montana and Weber State.
Just how much success Eastern has will depend, in great part, on whether Nichols can regain the consistency and productivity he displayed a sophomore in 2007, when he threw for 3,744 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns as the Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP.
Nichols’ numbers slipped last fall, but after dropping 20 pounds over the winter – and keeping them off – he seems poised for a big finish, regardless of how the school’s appeal of its postseason ban turns out.
Senior wide receivers Aaron Boyce, Tony Davis and Brynsen Brown and senior tight end Nathan Overbay will again be among Nichols’ favorite targets. But freshman Nicholas Edwards, a rangy 6-foot-3, 200-pound rookie out of Tacoma Foss High School looked great in fall camp and is listed ahead of Brown at the “X” receiver spot on the depth chart heading into Saturday’s home and season opener against Western Oregon.
The Eagles lost their top three running backs from last season, but Baldwin has few concerns at the position after moving Taiwan Jones, a speedy sophomore who was a backup cornerback as a freshman, into the starting position, where he should be capably backed up by sophomore Tyler Hart and redshirt freshman Chase King.
The offensive line is big and relatively experienced, but the loss of junior Brice Leahy to an offseason knee injury will hurt.
The Eagles’ defense is experienced in the secondary, where senior free safety Kevin Hatch and senior corner Lonnie Hosley return, and at linebacker, where senior Makai Borden, who is sidelined with a minor hamstring injury, leads a veteran group of run-stoppers.
The defensive line remains suspect, however, considering three of last year’s full-time starters – including Buck Buchanan Award winner Greg Peach – are gone. Still, Baldwin views the rebuilding process up front in terms of eagerness rather than concern.
“I know that’s one position people are going to have their eyes on because of the guys we lost,” Baldwin said. “But I look at it as a fun and exciting challenge for those kids who are stepping in for them – just like it was for those kids who stepped in on our offensive line last fall.”
Junior nose tackle Tyler Jolley will anchor the defensive line this fall, and senior weak-side end Jacob Kragt is also back. But the other tackle spot will be shared by sophomores David Miles and Renard Williams, with redshirt freshman Evan Cook manning the strong-side end position.
“Our defense has done a great job, so far this fall, of not giving up the big play,” Baldwin said. “There are still going to be plays made (against us), but it just doesn’t feel like there is as much an opportunity for big plays as there was last year.
“And if you have to go the length of the field and make 10- or 12-play drives, it’s hard to score a lot of points.”
Eastern’s special teams remain a bit of a mixed bag as Baldwin tries to replace place-kicker Felipe Macias and punter Fritz Brayton. Those battles remain ongoing, with sophomore Mike Jarrett listed as the place-kicker and junior Cameron Zuber as the punter.
The return teams should be solid, however, thanks to an abundance of linebacker and safety types who were recruited to help in that area and the presence of Jones and Nicholas Ramos, who will return punts and kickoffs.
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