The moment punt returners got their hands on a deep, high-hanging kick from the booming leg of Jordan Dascalo, they could already feel the breath of Eastern Washington’s coverage team.
Fair catches were commonplace with the now-graduated Dalasco, the Eagles’ lone All-Big Sky Conference first-team selection last season. As a result, EWU ranked seventh in the country in punt defense, giving up a meager 3.5 yards a return.
Roldan Alcobendas, the Eagles’ kickoff and place-kicker the last three seasons, hopes for similar results. He’ll be punting this fall, too. He averaged 60 yards a kickoff to help the coverage team finish a decent 39th (19 yards per return) in the nation.
Most of the pieces to EWU’s kickoff and punt coverage teams are intact. Special teams coordinator Heath Pulver hopes to build off that success.
“From a coverage unit standpoint, we have a foundation of continuing and piggybacking off last season’s success,” Pulver said. “The culture is to keep that going. We want to make sure that we’re forcing fair catches, we’re competing at the line of scrimmage and getting downfield with our team speed.”
EWU, one of the most senior-laden and experienced teams at the FCS level, knows what it has with its coverage players, who didn’t surrender a touchdown. Now it’s aiming for more consistency in its kicking game.
Alcobendas, a sixth-year senior with a pair of knee injuries, ranks third in school history in kicking points (201). The Camas, Washington, product, has made 20 of his 31 career field-goal attempts and is 141 of 146 on PATs.
He hit 10 of 15 field goals last season, a number he wants to improve in his final season of eligibility.
The return of three-year, first-string long snapper Curtis Billen should help.
“I think I focused too much about stats in the past,” said Alcobendas, who hit a career-long field goal of 48 yards last season against Montana State. “Now I just want to focus on making every kick and doing what I can do help us become a better team this year.”
Alcobendas appears to be front-runner for the starting job, but he’s been pushed by freshman Trevor Bowens, sophomore Andre Slyter and walk-on Seth Harrison. Bowens committed to Utah State in 2017, but did not play last season. Brandyn Bangsund has also looked strong at kicker.
“Competition brings the best character out of you, so they’re pushing me to my limits everyday,” Alcobendas said.
The Eagles also welcome back last season’s kick and punt returners, who often gave their offense decent field position.
With speedsters Dre’Sonte Dorton and Nsimba Webster returning kicks in 2017, the Eagles ranked ninth in the country in return yards (24.3 per return). Dorton, also a reserve wide receiver, averaged 27.7 per return, which also ranked ninth.
Zach Eagle, a senior wide receiver, is again listed as the team’s punt returner after averaging 6.8 yards per return.
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