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EWU football vows to return to championship level

Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin in 2015. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin in 2015. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

For Eastern Washington football fans, it was a November to forget: three straight losses and no postseason.

Instead, Eagles players and coaches chose to burn the memory into their heads – all the easier to say, “Never again.”

Now’s the time to put words into action, as the Eagles open fall camp this week in preparation for what they hope is a return to what coach Beau Baldwin calls “championship standards.”

“We have to ask ourselves: What are our standards, all the way down to how we stretch, and what we do in the locker room,” said Baldwin, who admitted that some of those standards weren’t being reached even during a midseason six-game winning streak.

“I didn’t do a good job of pushing the standard of being at a championship level,” Baldwin said.

That’s from a coach who led the Eagles to a national championship and Big Sky Conference titles in four of the last six seasons.

But after Eastern finished 6-5 and out of the postseason for the first time in four years, Baldwin said the entire program bought into the idea of looking inward, “of asking ourselves, ‘Were we doing the things necessary to be at that championship level?’

“And we felt like we weren’t.”

Next up is a four-week grind that begins with the first fall practice Tuesday morning. The Eagles return 54 letterwinners and 14 starters, including Football Championship Division offensive player of the year in receiver Cooper Kupp, plus experience at quarterback and throughout the defense.

Questions loom, of course. The biggest is how to replace the entire defensive line and how the defense will find a way stiffen on third down.

Then there’s the September schedule, probably the toughest in school history. The Eagles open Sept. 3 at resurgent Washington State, then visit five-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State.

A week later, on Sept. 17, EWU hosts Missouri Valley Conference power Northern Iowa before going back on the road to face Big Sky preseason favorite Northern Arizona.

“In terms of the guys playing on the field, they’ve loving it – it’s a chance to go against the best of the best,” Baldwin said.

Here’s a position-by-position look at how the Eagles shape up going into fall camp:

Quarterback: Redshirt sophomore Gage Gubrud is the front-runner after a strong spring in which he showed off his mobility – an element the Eagles lacked last year. Fellow sophomore Reilly Hennessey and senior Jordan West have plenty of game experience, which gives EWU its best depth in years.

Running backs: The Eagles return just three players, including senior Jabari Wilson (661 yards last year), and underclassmen Sam McPherson and Ashanti Kindle. That could open the door for a true freshman to see action, and the Eagles have some good ones in Antoine Custer, Tamarick Pierce and Jason Talley.

Wide receivers: There isn’t a better corps in the FCS. Seniors Kupp and Kendrick Bourne lead a group that’s also deep. Other returnees include Shaq Hill (back from injury), Nic Sblendorio, Simba Webster, Terence Grady and Stu Stiles.

Offensive line: This may be the most watched unit in fall camp, as assistant Aaron Best replaces his starting five and top two backups. “They’re very good players, but like any talented group, it takes playing together as a unit,” said Baldwin, who expects to see a big growth in chemistry on the line.

Defensive line: This year’s group will have a good balance of youth and experience, with tackle Matthew Sommer and Samson Ebukan providing leadership. The Eagles appeared bigger and stronger along the line, which should help keep them from falling behind the chains as they did last year.

Linebackers: Led by senior Miquiyah Zamora and sophomore Alek Kacmarcik, the group looks solid. There’s plenty of depth. Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun look to be the top backups.

Defensive backs: Thanks to its talent, depth and greater understanding of the 4-2-5 scheme, this unit could be the most improved on the team. Corners Nzuzi Webster, Victor Gamboa and Josh Lewis figure to lead a group that seems to be improving in maturity – as in when to take chances in coverage and when to play it safer. Roverback Cole Karstetter looks comfortable in that role. The safeties, led by Zach Bruce and Mitch Fettig, are solid and experienced.

Special teams: A three-way race for kicker probably won’t be decided until later this month, but Brandyn Bangsund, Jordan Dascalo and Roldan Alcobendas all have college experience. Most of the other positions look solid: Dascalo at punter, Curtis Billen at long snapper and Kupp at punt return. Several candidates will get a shot at returning kickoffs.

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