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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Saturday, February 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Special teams go back to basics

Happy returns, indeed.

Nine months later, Shaquille Hill still gets teased about his kickoff return last year against Illinois State, the one he was taking to the house before dropping the ball on the doorstep.

“I’m still getting teased to this day,” said Hill, who can smile about it now, especially when he looks back on a season that again made something special out of Eastern’s special teams.

Hill and fellow return man Cory Mitchell were only two of the reasons the Eagles averaged 23.5 yards per return last season, far above the 19.0 average of 2011 and matching the figure from the FCS championship season of 2010.

“Overall, we made a lot more big plays on special teams as a whole,” head coach Beau Baldwin said Wednesday at practice. “When you have success during a season, a lot of times you can look back to the plays you made on special teams.”

Never satisfied, Baldwin and special teams coach Jeff Schmedding want even more. “Shaq is dynamic, and so is Mitchell,” Schmedding said. “If they don’t want to kick it to Shaq, I feel very confident in what Cory can do.”

“But we’re trying to build on that, by harping on fundamentals.”

All phases of special teams occupy a big part of every practice, Schmedding said, including communication before the kickoff. Hill and Mitchell know beforehand where the blocking will be, and plan to move accordingly.

“That’s usually where you’re supposed to go,” Hill said. “But sometimes it doesn’t end up like that.”

Punt returns are a different matter; the numbers don’t reflect team success. Last year’s 11-3 team averaged 6.3 yards per return, a sharp drop from the 8.4-yard figure from the 2011 team that finished 6-5.

The national championship team averaged only 5.3 per punt return, which seems contradictory until two blocked punts are taken into account.

Baldwin expects to improve on that 6.3-yard figure, which is misleading because the Eagles often play for the blocked punt. That paid off in a crucial win at Montana State, where Dylan Zylstra blocked a fourth-quarter kick that teammate Evan Day recovered in the Bobcat end zone to give the Eagles a lead they would hold until game’s end.

Last season, wide receiver Ashton Clark fielded every punt except for the one blocked by Zylstra. “He’s been steady for us,” Schmedding said, adding that he’s also taking a look at safety Tevin McDonald and wideouts Cooper Kupp and Daniel Johnson.

Again, Schmedding looks at the bigger picture, which unfolds during camp. That way, Schmedding said, “Whatever we’re seeing (in games), we know how to attack it and do the base fundamentals with it. First we want to catch everything, then we also want to get a first down, but there’s a decision, including taking a fair catch.

“That’s why that returner has to make good decisions.”


Baldwin said Saturday’s scrimmage at Roos Field will include referees and will be “very situational.” Practice will begin at 9 a.m. and the scrimmage at about 9:45. The scrimmage is open to the public. … The Eagles unveiled new home uniforms. The Adidas TechFit uniforms are designed to match the red turf at Roos Field, and weigh 30 percent less than the previous model.

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