Judging by the football players’ attitude Monday afternoon, the cup is always half-full at Eastern Washington.
Even as quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. announced that he was moving on to Oregon, his former teammates were sweating it out in the weight room, preparing for spring ball and the 2015 season.
The news from Adams drew hardly a shrug, perhaps because it was expected.
“He’s a great quarterback, but it’s not going to set us back at all,” All-America offensive lineman Aaron Neary said after a set on the bench press.
“We still have the same goal: a national championship,” Neary said.
The bar is set pretty high these days in Cheney, partly because of Adams but mostly because of what the program accomplished before Adams set foot on campus: winning the national title in 2010.
That Adams couldn’t deliver another one speaks to many factors, though it was his fourth-down overthrow against Towson that helped cost the Eagles a return to the title game in 2013.
Want a telling stat? Since 2012, the Eagles are 26-6 when Adams started under center, but 10-3 when he didn’t.
With or without Adams, the Eastern progam is among the top in the Football Championship Subdivision, even after one of the most eventful, distracting offseasons in recent history:
• As Eastern competed in the playoffs, coach Beau Baldwin was rumored to be in the running for positions at Oregon State and Colorado State, among others.
• In response, the school gave Baldwin the biggest pay increase in his 7-year tenure, raising his base salary 27 percent, to $212,717.
• In late January, Baldwin announced a major staff shake-up, notably replacing longtime defensive coordinator John Graham with safeties coach Jeff Schmedding. Among other reasons, the change was made, in Baldwin’s words, to “push for even more.”
• Last week, moments before he announced this year’s crop of 21 high-school signees, Baldwin had to answer more questions about Adams.
The Eagles will attempt to do that without Adams, one of the most exciting and prolific players in school history, but no less replaceable than former EWU greats Matt Nichols, Erik Meyer and Bo Levi Mitchell.
The next man up, Jordan West, who has four starts under his belt going into his redshirt junior season, will be protected by the most veteran line in the Big Sky Conference, and will throw to three of the league’s best receivers in Cooper Kupp, Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne. The biggest question on offense is who will replace the field-stretching abilities of departed running backs Quincy Forte and Mario Brown.
And yes, Adams’ biggest asset was his ability to extend plays and allow those receivers to get open.
“I think we just have to work hard,” Bourne said. “It’s something new for us, but something we’re looking forward to.”
The bigger questions loom on defense, where the Eagles lose five starters from last year, including their two most dynamic players in linebacker Ronnie Hamlin and safety Tevin McDonald.
The final stats weren’t pretty, including those that Baldwin himself says are crucial to overall success: Out of 124 teams, the Eagles ranked 86th in third-down conversion defense (giving up 42.1 percent) and 110th in red-zone defense (allowing scores on 88.9 percent of opponents’ possessions).
Whether those numbers improve next year will depend partly on Schmedding, but also on the maturation of a line that last year saw seven true freshmen pressed into service.
Additionally, more speed at linebacker is a must, along with depth at safety and the return to health of several cornerbacks lost to injury last year.
Said Baldwin: “This is a moment where we each need to move forward.”
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