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EWU Spring Practice Scheduled to Begin
Eagles return 38 letter winners from a team that finished 6-5 but ended the season strong
– At a Glance – As long as the weather cooperates, the Eastern Washington University football team begins spring practices for the 2009 season on Tuesday, April 7. Second-year head coach Beau Baldwin expects to have about 60 players participating, including 38 returning letter winners. The Eagles finished the 2008 season 6-5, including victories in their final three games of the season.
“To me, there are no excuses for us not to go out and compete at a high level every week of the season,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “From January until now our players have done a great job and have made strides, but we still have a long ways to go. How well we compete against the teams on our schedule and in our league depends on how we approach April, May, June and July, and then into August when we start our season.”
Last year, poor field and weather conditions postponed several spring practice sessions. As a result, practices actually took place after the Red-White Game that traditionally ends spring practices. This year, the Eagles have intentionally scheduled a later start and will again practice the week after the Red-White Game.
– Players to Watch – A total of 12 players return who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors a year ago, including a pair of wide receivers selected to the second team last year as juniors – Aaron Boyce (Kent, Wash. - Kentwood HS ’05) and Brynsen Brown (Puyallup, Wash. - Emerald Ridge HS ’05). Boyce caught 63 passes for 917 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and has 183 catches for 2,696 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career . . . Senior quarterback Matt Nichols (Cottonwood, Calif.) is one of 10 players returning who earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors after earning the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore. He has passed for 8,786 yards and 63 touchdowns in his career . . . Talented sophomore Taiwan Jones (Antioch, Calif.) will move to running back to help replace four departed seniors at that position. Jones missed the early part of the 2008 season with a broken fibula, but returned to start four games at cornerback for the Eagles . . . Twin brothers Matt and Zach Johnson (Tumwater, Wash. - Tumwater HS ’07) return after stellar debut seasons. They combined for 179 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team, with Zach finishing with 96 and a team-high seven passes broken up, and Matt closing the year with 83 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Both players earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades in 2008.
– Injured Eagles – Players not taking part in spring practices because of shoulder injuries include honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference special teams player Nicholas Ramos (Winters, Calif.) and defensive back Ethen Robinson (Spokane - Lewis & Clark HS).
– Killin Dinner/Dance/Auction – Orland Killin Weekend, which is presented by the Michael Roos Foundation, includes the Coaches Golf Tournament on April 24 and the annual Killin Dinner, Dance and Auction following the Red-White Game on April 25. More information on Killin Weekend is available at: http://goeags.cstv.com/genrel/022509aaa.html.
– Comments from Head Coach Beau Baldwin –
– On Focus of Spring – “Like most springs, first and foremost you have more time to work on fundamentals, so that can be huge. During the season it becomes more schematic and each week you are taking on a team and game-planning. I’ll be the first to admit that you get away from some fundamental things during the season. You want to get back to the fundamentals and the basic stuff, but from there we want to create our own identity.”
– On Off-Season – “It’s gone very well. The players really bought into our winter conditioning and off-season plan. They have done a great job and everybody is excited about April 7.”
– On Off-Season Recruiting – “We had as strong a year recruiting as I can remember in a long time going back to my days as an assistant coach. We were able to sign a lot of quality players and great student-athletes, and we will have high hopes for them when they come in. Two or three years down the road we’ll really find out.”
– On Little Things – “We’re going to talk about all the little things that can make the difference. When you go back and break down the season and ask why you were 5-3 in the league, maybe it’s a couple of little things here or there. Maybe there are a couple of things we can do different in April that will carry over down the road.”
– On Playing Portland State in Seattle at Qwest Field – “I think it’s great for the program and for the many student-athletes we have who come from that area. Even if they aren’t from that area, it’s a great opportunity to play in that environment and in that stadium. It’s nice to be connected to the West side, and we’re hoping there will be a lot of fans at that ballgame that may not get over to Cheney to see a football game. Maybe that can be a way for fans to be more involved and excited with our program. It’s a great opportunity for everybody involved and we’re excited about it.”
– On 2009 Schedule – “Cal is obviously a great football team and a tremendous challenge for us, but the rest of our schedule is a good fit for us. Our focus needs to be on our first game on Sept. 5, and then we’ll worry about the next one. It’s natural to look at your entire schedule to see what you have. It’s only a great schedule if you take care of business each week, but we’re excited about it.”
– On Looking Good on Paper With 38 Letter Winners and 15 Starters Back – “I’ve seen years where on paper you’re set-up to achieve certain things and you don’t. And I’ve seen years where you are aren’t expected to do much and you do. It comes down to whether the coaches and players are willing to do all the things to put us in a position to have a successful season. In my opinion, it’s going to come down to the little things.”
– On Resiliency of Players in Wake of NCAA Penalties – “I’ve been extremely impressed with how resilient our players are – they have a tough mindset to them. A lot was thrown their way, and people can say what they want on whether or not it was fair. The bottom line is that as a group, all of our players are going in the same direction.”
– On Quarterback Matt Nichols in the Off-Season – “In my opinion, he’s had the best winter that I’ve seen him have. He’s been working hard in the weight room and in speed and agility drills to help change his body. This is the best winter I’ve seen out of him and one of best I’ve ever seen out of a quarterback.”
2009 SEASON OUTLOOK
Last November, the wins finally caught up with the improvement the Eastern Washington University football team made during the 2008 season.
For what they accomplished in the final half of that year, the Eagles are hoping for a carryover effect for the 2009 season to improve upon last year’s 6-5 finish that included a 5-3 record in the Big Sky Conference.
The Eagles return 38 letter winners from last year’s team that ended the season with a three-game winning streak, including 18 back on offense and 20 returning on defense. A total of 15 starters are returning, featuring eight on offense and seven on defense.
Eastern had high hopes in 2008 after appearing in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs three times in the previous four seasons, including breakthrough playoff victories in 2004 and 2007. Three losses in a four-game stretch from Oct. 4 to Nov. 1 spoiled those hopes, but Eastern still managed to salvage the season with its 10th winning season in the last 12 campaigns.
“There’s a growing process between the coaching staff and the team,” explained head coach Beau Baldwin, who had five new coaches join him during his first season as EWU’s head coach. “Last year was our first year, so both sides were feeling each other out a little bit. Now we are moving forward because the players have a better idea of what is expected of them. Heading into this season we have a better idea of the team and its make-up, and we’re all very excited about that.”
Baldwin, a former Eastern quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2003-06, will help coach the offense again this season. Last year’s progress of that unit mirrored the improvement of the defense, culminating in the season-ending three-game winning streak.
“Last year gave us the opportunity to get a feel again for what we are trying to do, what my goals are and what I like to do philosophy-wise,” Baldwin explained. “I coached them when they were younger, but I was gone in 2007. We were pleased with how we finished as a team, and when you break it down offensively, I was very excited with the way the offense played as a group. We really came together at the end of the season, and we’re hoping that will carry over this year. We want to be clicking from the get-go.”
To return to the FCS Playoffs this year, the Eagles will not only have to win more, but hope they eventually receive good news from the NCAA as well. Eastern appealed a postseason ban levied by the NCAA after a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07 was released in February. The NCAA investigated a series of secondary rule violations, which, taken in total, led to a major infractions case. The university originally self-reported the violations to the NCAA in February 2007.
Whether or not the appeal is denied, the Eagles are taking the approach that the postseason ban won’t be a penalty unless Eastern takes care of business on the field.
“When the announcement was made initially, it was hard,” explained Baldwin. “But it was amazing how resilient and how fast they came back from that. They said, ‘we don’t control that so we’re going to get after it and work hard.’”
“There’s a little chip on their shoulder, but to me, it has taken nothing away from their work ethic. A lot of that comes from great leaders. We have some players in place – seniors especially – who have done a great job of leading everybody through it. It’s not what we planned for or expected, but the schedule is ahead of us so let’s battle that. All we control is how well we play each day. We are guaranteed 11 games and we’re going to do everything we can to prepare for that between now and Sept. 5.”
In all, Baldwin has 25 players returning with starting experience and a total of 281 starts between them. That list is led by a pair of seniors who were highly-honored in 2007 – quarterback Matt Nichols and wide receiver Aaron Boyce.
Nichols, who was Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP after throwing for a school-record 34 touchdowns in 2007, has started 33 games in his career. He has passed for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons after getting his feet wet as a freshman in 2006.
Boyce, an All-American in 2007, has started 32 games. He had 63 catches last season to give him a total of 183 in his career (second-most in school history).
In 2008, Boyce had to settle for second team All-Big Sky honors and Nichols earned honorable mention. A total of 12 Eastern players who earned All-Big Sky honors last year – including second team wide receiver Brynsen Brown – are back and provide a base of talent for the Eagles. Brown caught 50 passes and had four touchdowns a year ago.
Returning All-Big Sky honorable mention selections on offense included senior wide receiver Tony Davis, senior tight end Nathan Overbay, senior offensive tackle Chris Thomas and junior offensive tackle Brice Leahy. Returning honorable mentions on defense are senior linebacker Makai Borden, junior outside linebacker J.C. Sherritt and a pair of sophomore twins – strong safety Matt Johnson and outside linebacker Zach Johnson. Another All-Big Sky player returning is senior special teams standout Nicholas Ramos.
Among the 19 letter winners lost were 18 seniors who combined for 232 starts in their careers. All but seven of those seniors were four-year letter winners, including three starting defensive linemen. One of those, All-America defensive end Greg Peach, won the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top player in FCS and was also the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
The offense has something to prove in 2009, and the leader of that effort is Nichols. He led Eastern to nine victories as a sophomore in 2007 when he passed for 3,744 yards and 34 touchdowns, and had another 392 yards on the ground. As a junior, his numbers (in two less games) slipped to 3,293 yards and 21 touchdowns passing, and 83 yards rushing.
“I’ve been extremely impressed with his approach to his senior season, especially with the unfortunate news of the postseason ban,” said Baldwin. “One of the comments he’s made is, ‘it’s only a penalty if we make it a penalty. They could have slapped us with that last year and it wouldn’t have mattered, right?’ That’s the right approach, and we have to earn the right for that to really be a penalty. He’s going out there with the idea that we are going to make that a penalty if the appeal does not go our way.”
Nichols will have a seasoned and experienced wide receiver unit returning, headlined by Boyce, Brown and Davis, who was Eastern’s second-leading receiver a year ago with 53 catches and three scores. That trio has combined for 456 catches, 6,329 yards and 43 touchdowns in 98 games worth of experience (80 starts).
Other returning letter winners at wide receiver include Ramos, J.T. Leggin, and Ashton Gant. Ramos finished with eight catches for 88 yards, and Gant and Leggin added four and three catches, respectively.
At tight end, Overbay returns after catching 28 passes for 364 yards and a pair of scores. Also back is junior Matt Martin, who added 11 catches for 118 yards.
The offensive line was young and inexperienced in 2008, and actually gave up fewer sacks (18) than it did the previous season (25). But the Eagles generated only 98.5 yards per game on the ground – nearly 70 less per game than the year before. It was the lowest average per game for the Eagles since 1987 when Eastern played the first of what is now 22 seasons as a member of the Big Sky Conference.
The line is led by a pair of honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference selections in senior Chris Thomas (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) and junior Brice Leahy (6-7, 295). The other returning starter is senior Ryan Forney (6-3, 280), but Eastern also returns three other letter winners in Gabriel Jackson (6-4, 275), John Rice (6-7, 295) and Nikolai Myers (6-4, 275).
Eastern lost four senior running backs, but have three letter winners returning who are capable of filling that void. Tyler Hart was working his way up the depth chart and had 84 yards rushing with two touchdowns in 2008 before his season was ended with a broken scapula.
Also back – but in a different position – is speedster Taiwan Jones. He had 54 tackles and four passes broken up in seven games as a cornerback in 2008 after missing the first half of the season with a broken fibula.
But Jones was a talented running back in high school, and his skill with the ball led the coaches to give him some repetitions at wide receiver for the Eagles late last fall. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry as a senior in high school as he finished with a total of 1,466 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns to earn San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro honors.
Jones had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the Eagles last season against Northern Colorado, which further cemented the need to get the ball in his hands as a running back.
“Taiwan is obviously a dynamic athlete, and he wasn’t able to show that a lot last year,” explained Baldwin. “But we saw glimpses of it, like his kickoff return against Northern Colorado. He’s a special player with the ball in his hands.
The third returning letter winner is fullback Darriell Beaumonte, who rushed for 25 yards and had three tackles on special teams.
“Tyler Hart is a tremendous running back, and had he not been injured, he could have had a very, very successful freshman season,” Baldwin said of the running back corp. “We also have some younger players who can step-in. We’re excited about that group as a whole, and Taiwan just adds an extra piece to that group that already had the potential of being very strong. They are still somewhat un-proven and have a lot to prove, but we’re excited about the players that are there.”
Like the offense, Eastern’s defense was superb in the last half of the season under first-year defensive coordinator John Graham. After giving up 623 passing yards in a 47-36 loss at Portland State, the Eagles held five-straight opponents from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15 to 19 points or fewer. That was something that EWU has never done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984. The Eagles closed the year by limiting Weber State’s high-powered offense to 26 points in a 33-26 Eagle victory.
“A lot of that was just finding out what our identity was on defense, understanding our philosophies and the players having a better idea of how they were being coached,” said Baldwin. “It was night and day when comparing the first five games with the last six. We’re excited about carrying that over.”
The defensive line last season featured a trio of senior All-Big Sky performers, but the cupboard is certainly not bare for Eastern’s defense.
Sophomore Renard Williams (6-2, 300) returns as a starter after finishing his debut season with 27 tackles, two sacks and seven total tackles for loss. Junior Tyler Jolley (6-3, 275) started four games and finished the year with 27 tackles with a sack and three passes batted down in nine games played.
Other returning letter winners include senior Jacob Kragt (6-3, 230), sophomore David Miles (6-4, 245) and senior Josh Jacobson (6-1, 250).
“We’re excited about the group we have coming in,” said Baldwin. “It’s a lot like last year when we lost a lot of offensive linemen. We’re excited to see the young defensive linemen and we’re excited about some of the older players who haven’t been able to play quite as much and now have that opportunity. We’re excited to see how hard they work and how bad they want playing time. They are all excited to come in and try to prove something.”
Six starters return at linebacker and the secondary, including three linebackers who all earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2008. Zach Johnson leads the returning backers with 96 tackles and a team-leading seven passes broken up in 2008, with injuries sidelining Sherritt (64 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss, one interception) and Borden (43 tackles) at various times during the season. Borden has started 20 games, with Eastern owning a 13-4 record the past two seasons with him in the starting lineup.
Other returning letter winners at linebacker include senior Kyle Wilkins, junior Jason Harris and sophomore Bobby Gentry. Wilkins finished the 2008 season with 46 tackles and a sack as he helped fill the void when injuries sidelined a trio of linebackers at the same time.
In the secondary, 24-game starting free safety Kevin Hatch returns for his senior season. He had 60 tackles for the season and an interception he returned 73 yards for a touchdown in Eastern’s season-ending win over Big Sky champion Weber State.
Matt Johnson and senior cornerback Lonnie Hosley are the other two starters returning, with Johnson finishing his freshman season with 83 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Hosley started EWU’s first five games and finished with 13 tackles and six passes up before a foot injury ended his season.
Six other letter winners return in the secondary, including senior Brett Igbinoba, who has moved back to cornerback after playing as a wide receiver in 2008. The others are juniors John Roberts, Jesse Hoffman, Dante Calcote, Will Edge and Ethen Robinson.
“Another position where some young players are going to have to step-up is defensive back,” said Baldwin. “We don’t have a large number of defensive backs, but it was a position we recruited heavily. We signed a number of defensive backs, so there could be young players in the lineup, but a lot of that depends on where the veteran players are. We’re hoping that’s a very competitive position this spring and that some players who haven’t played much in prior years are able to step-up for us.”
Eastern’s punter, kicker and long snapper were all seniors in 2008, and replacing them will fall on the shoulders of non-lettering squad members and newcomers.
“Those positions are going to be extremely competitive,” said Baldwin. “We have players on the roster right now who are competing for those positions, plus we also recruited to those areas. Spring will answer a few of those questions, and then we’ll answer the rest in fall camp when the freshmen report. We’ll evaluate it and determine what direction we need to go.”
Eastern does return some of the league’s premier kick returners in Ramos, Jones and Davis. Ramos returned 17 kickoffs for a 23.2 average a year ago, and Jones averaged 36.3 in just seven returns with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus Northern Colorado. Davis had a 10.3 average in 19 punt returns in 2008, and in his career he has returned 28 punts for a 9.9 average and a touchdown.
By Eastern Washington University Sports Information