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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eagles must settle big questions before opener

EWU’s Beau Baldwin isn’t daunted by his to-do list. (Tyler Tjomsland)

The Eastern Washington football players are more than ready to make some news where it matters most – on the field. Following a dramatic offseason, the rearview mirror has been well and truly tossed aside – all the better to improve the focus on winning a fourth consecutive Big Sky Conference title.

“We’re ready to get at it,” said coach Beau Baldwin, who welcomes 13 returning starters, 43 letter winners and a host of newcomers to the opening of fall camp on Wednesday. There’s no time to waste, as there’s plenty on the Eagles’ plate between now and the season opener at Oregon on Sept. 5.

Among the major challenges:

• Fine-tuning the offense to best use the talents of a new starting quarterback.

• Continuing the transition to a 4-2-5 base defense under new coordinator Jeff Schmedding.

• Sorting through a small army of defensive backs to fine-tune the depth chart.

• Filling holes at punter, holder and long snapper.

The challenge isn’t as daunting as it appears, said Baldwin, whose adaptability has helped make the Eagles the Big Sky’s winningest program over the past five seasons. Not even the departure of All-American quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and several defensive stars could dissuade the experts from picking Eastern to finish at or near the top of the Big Sky this year.

That’s because the Eagles’ offense again figures to be among the most potent in the conference and the Football Championship Subdivision. A talented, veteran offensive line and perhaps the best receiving corps in the nation should more than make up for new faces in the backfield.

On the other hand, those faces aren’t all that new. Redshirt junior quarterback Jordan West started four games last year while Adams was injured, while junior running backs Jabari Wilson and Jalen Moore have seen action for two seasons.

“When they’ve been healthy they have been extremely productive,” Baldwin said while noting that Wilson was the starter for Eastern’s epic win at Oregon State in 2013. “They’ve earned the opportunities.”

Baldwin also liked what he saw in spring ball from redshirt freshman Ashanti Kindle.

Still, most of the fans’ attention will be focused on the battle at quarterback, where the 6-foot-5 West gained added stature last year by completing 86 of 142 passes for 1,072 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. West figures to be pushed this month by redshirt freshmen Reilly Hennessey and Gabe Gubrud, both of whom performed well in spring ball.

“Definitely, I’d say it’s a situation where you’re going to hand the ball to Jordan on Day One of fall camp,” Baldwin said. “But we’re in a great situation and all three have earned it, but any competition we have has nothing to do with what Jordan has done ineffectively, it’s what the other two have brought.”

The personnel changes also mean some “subtle” changes in the overall offense, Baldwin said.

The bigger chore seems to be on the other side of the ball where Schmedding has installed a new scheme that’s partly a response to playoff losses against Sam Houston State (in 2012) and Illinois State (last year) in which opponents “spaced us out,” Baldwin said.

The 4-2-5 scheme includes “a lot of similar things. We may not be as big, but we’re probably more athletic now,” Baldwin said, adding that the transition “hasn’t been tough at all.

“Any time you have change, it can be tough, but it can energize things.”

Several interesting position battles loom on defense, especially at cornerback and linebacker.

“I’m excited to see the whole battle,” Baldwin said.