With a focus on finding a replacement for quarterback Matt Nichols, Eastern Washington begins preparations for 2010 season
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks.
In search of a replacement for a four-year starter at quarterback, the Eastern Washington University football team begins spring practices for the 2010 season on Wednesday, March 31. Third-year head coach Beau Baldwin expects to have about 75 players participating, including 42 returning letter winners.
The Eagles finished the 2009 season with an 8-4 record and advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons. Eastern expects to return 10 starters from that team -- including five on offense and five on defense, plus a pair of returning players who started nearly half of the season as injury replacements.
However, the Eagles did lose 17 Eagle seniors who combined for 350 starts in their careers, including quarterback Matt Nichols, tight end Nathan Overbay and right tackle Chris Thomas off an extremely prolific offense.
“We’re looking at the positions where we lost players and are trying to find out who is going to step in and take over,” he explained. “That is going to be a huge undertaking at a few key spots, including quarterback, tight end and right tackle.”
Defensively, Eastern returns All-America linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who averaged more than 14 tackles per game in 2009 to lead FCS. Eastern also returns three starting defensive linemen, as well as twin brothers Matt and Zach Johnson at safety and linebacker, respectively. Despite their youth a year ago, the Eagles still have to replace three starters in the secondary and had several other key graduation losses.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we want to create even more of an identity,” Baldwin said of that unit’s focus in the spring. “We were very young at a lot of positions, and hopefully being a year older and more experienced we can find out what we are really all about as a defensive unit. We want to build off that by the end of the spring so that we think we have something special going into fall camp.”
“Our goal is to keep building,” added Baldwin. “We obviously lose some big-time players, but we have a lot of younger players who will be a year older this year and we feel good about. There shouldn’t be any reason for a letdown -- our goals are to fight again for the Big Sky Conference title and contend for a playoff berth.”
Running back Taiwan Jones is the top player from the offense returning after a 1,000-yard season helped him earn All-America honors as a sophomore. His talent should also be augmented by the addition of a synthetic turf surface at Woodward Field. The red turf is expected to be installed this summer in time for the 2010 season.
The hope is that a more experienced unit up front will control the line of scrimmage more and, overall, the defensive side of the ball won’t be on the field as much as they were in 2009. A productive running game will help Eastern toward that goal after Eastern’s quick-strike offense in 2009 helped lead to an average of 76 plays per game for opponents. That was nearly six more per game than EWU, which had a half-minute deficit in time of possession despite out-gaining opponents 462-428 per game.
“Defensively we’re young and I feel really good about where we are,” said Baldwin. “We have a couple of cornerbacks and a safety we have to replace, but overall we’re still pretty young. We feel we have a chance to continue to improve on that side of the football.”
A year ago, Eastern finished sixth in FCS in turnover margin, averaging 1.25 less turnovers per game than its opponents. Baldwin said that will continue to be an emphasis this spring after Eastern was 6-0 during the regular season when it won the turnover battle, with a 22-4 advantage in those six games.
“To speak in a broader sense, we want to improve on some habits again,” he added. “We went into last year talking about ball leverage and certain things we wanted to improve, and we thought it carried over into the season as we were one of the top teams in turnover margin. We obviously want to expand on that because we thought it was a huge part of our success in 2009.”
Practices: Practices take place various days through April 29. Most practices are scheduled to start at 4 p.m. (media interviews at approximately 3:45 p.m. or after practice at about 6 p.m.). All practices take place on the EWU Sports and Recreation Center practice fields.
March 31 - Practice (no pads), 4 p.m.
April 1 - Practice (no pads), 4 p.m.
April 7 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 8 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 10 - Scrimmage, approx. 1 p.m., location TBA
April 13 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 14 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 16 - Practice (no pads), 4 p.m.
April 17 - Scrimmage, approx. 12:30 p.m., Woodward Field
April 20 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 21 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 24 - Red-White Spring Game, 2 p.m., Woodward Field
April 27 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 28 - Practice, 4 p.m.
April 29 - Practice, 4 p.m.
Scrimmages: Eastern is scheduled to scrimmage on Saturday, April 10 (approximately 1 p.m.) and Saturday, April 17 (approximately 12:30 p.m.), with locations to be determined based on field conditions. The annual Red-White Game will take place on Saturday, April 24 at 2 p.m. at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash., in conjunction with Killin Weekend at EWU.
Injured Eagles: Players not expected to take part in spring practices because of injuries include Matt Johnson (shoulder), Ethen Robinson (shoulder), Jakob Pugsley (knee) and Jakob Scott (collarbone). Other players who are questionable and/or will be limited in the spring include Brice Leahy (leg/knee), Zach Gehring (shoulder) and Ronnie Hamlin (knee). All-American Taiwan Jones, who had surgery in December to repair a sports hernia, will also see limited action in the spring as he continues to build strength from injuries to both shoulders and a hand during his debut as a running back in 2009. Johnson and Gehring also had surgeries following the season, and Hamlin and Robinson have also previously had operations.
Killin Dinner/Dance/Auction: Orland Killin Weekend, which is presented by the Michael Roos Foundation, includes the Coaches Golf Tournament on April 23 and the annual Killin Dinner, Dance and Auction following the Red-White Game on April 24. Besides the presence of former Eagle and Tennessee Titan Michael Roos, this year’s event features host Colin Cowherd, who is a former EWU student and is current an ESPN radio and TV personality. More information on Killin Weekend is available at: http://goeags.com/trads/ewas-killin.html and http://goeags.com/genrel/releases/10atFeb11ColinCowherd.
The Gunslingers: Eastern will take a look at six players this spring competing for the starting quarterback position. Returning letter winners Jeff Minnerly and Scott Burgett are in the mix, as well as 2009 redshirts Nick Gauthier and Anthony Vitto. Minnerly and Burgett are both sophomores, but had only 10 pass attempts between them as redshirt freshmen in 2009. Gauthier is a junior who transferred from Bakersfield College in California, and Vitto is a freshman.
A big push for the starting position will come from a pair of transfers -- Bo Levi Mitchell and Greg Panelli. Mitchell played two seasons at Southern Methodist University in Texas where he started all 19 of the games he played. In his career, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Mitchell completed 385-of-676 passes (57.0 percent) for 4,590 yards (241.6 per game) with 36 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. He was also 29-1 as a high school starter at Katy (Texas) High School. Panelli is from Newman, Calif., and Modesto Junior College. The strong-armed, 6-foot-3, 225-pounder passed for more than 5,000 yards and 56 touchdowns at Modesto and twice earned All-Golden Gate Conference honors.
Starting Over . . . Again: Eastern has been down this road before.
Much like 2005 when quarterback Erik Meyer graduated after winning the Walter Payton Award as the top player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, Eagle fans are wondering what Eagle Football will be like without 17 Eagle seniors who have combined for 350 starts in their careers.
Most notably, the Eagles lose All-American and Big Sky Conference all-time passing leader Matt Nichols, who was the league’s Offensive Player of the Year in both 2007 and 2009. Nichols replaced Meyer at quarterback in 2006 and helped the Eagles to 26 victories and a pair of FCS Playoff berths. In all, Nichols broke 14 school records and six Big Sky Conference marks.
“I still remember after the 2005 season that somebody said to me, ‘we’ll see what you’re like in the post-Erik Meyer era,’” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, who concluded his second season as head coach and sixth overall at EWU. “It was tough for a year for sure, but Matt came along after that and proved to be pretty good. We’ll get the same questions this year.”
Interestingly, neither Meyer nor Nichols locked-up the starting quarterback position during the spring before their starting debuts. Meyer and Skyler Allen were locked in a tight competition in spring 2003, and it wasn’t until the third game of the season that Meyer locked up the starting job. Nichols and Chris Peerboom shared snaps early in the 2006 season, and Peerboom started the team’s opener before Nichols started the final 10 games that season and 45 of the 47 games he played in his career.
EWU Head Coach Beau Baldwin on Finding a Starter at Quarterback This Spring: “We’re not going to go one way or another -- we’re going to let it play out during the spring. Ideally in a perfect world, you want to name a starter at the end of spring and have a good idea of who your quarterback is going to be heading into the summer and fall. But if you aren’t 100 percent sure on that and you think there are a couple of guys still fighting and battling, then you are in that situation like we were in 2003 and 2006. In that case, we’ll let it play out over the summer to let them keep battling, then we’ll head into fall camp with the same approach.”
Nation’s Leading Tackler Returns: Earning a clean sweep as a member of all five post-season All-America teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 2009, Eastern Washington University linebacker J.C. Sherritt returns after leading FCS in tackles with an average of 14.17 tackles per game.
A 2006 graduate of Pullman (Wash.) High School, Sherritt was one of 10 unanimous choices on the “Fabulous Fifty” All-America squad as selected by the College Sporting News. Sherritt was also named as a first team All-American on four other teams -- Associated Press, American Football Coaches Association, Sports Network and the Walter Camp Football Foundation. The only other Eagles to earn five first team All-America honors in the same year were offensive tackle Jim Buzzard in 1997 and Greg Peach in 2008 on his way to winning the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in FCS.
The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Sherritt had a total of 170 stops in 2009 to break the school record of 151 set by Greg Belzer in 2000. Besides his 170 tackles, Sherritt had 14 tackles for loss, four passes broken up, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
Running Back Taiwan Jones is EWU’s Other Returning All-American: Junior running back Taiwan Jones also returns for the 2010 season after earning a pair of All-America honors as a 1,000-yard rusher in 2009. He was a third team selection on The Sports Network’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision All-America Football Team, and was a third team choice as an all-purpose back on the Associate Press Al-America squad.
Jones, who is from Antioch, Calif., and graduated from Deer Valley High School in 2007, finished with 1,213 rushing yards in 2009 to rank as the sixth-most in school history. He ranked in the top 10 in FCS in rushing (ninth, 101.1 per game), scoring (sixth, 9.50 per game) and all-purpose yards per game (second, 195.4). His 2,345 all-purpose yards (rushing, receiving, returns) were the second-most in school history, and his 19 touchdowns and 114 total points both rank fourth.
Eastern has now had a 1,000-yard rusher for 10 of the last 15 seasons from 1995-2009, including seven different players. Before this season, the last time it happened came in 2004 when Darius Washington finished with 1,127 yards in 12 games.
More Players to Watch: A total of five players return who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors a year ago, including senior All-America linebacker J.C. Sherritt (Pullman, Wash. - Pullman HS ’06) and junior All-America running back Taiwan Jones (Antioch, Calif.). Both were first team All-Big Sky selections, as was junior defensive tackle Renard Williams (Port Orchard, Wash. - South Kitsap HS ’07). Williams is one of three starters returning on the defensive line, and he finished his sophomore season with 9 1/2 sacks and 35 total tackles. The other two returning All-Big Sky performers are junior center Chris Powers (Black Diamond, Wash. - Tahoma HS ’07) and junior safety Matt Johnson (Tumwater, Wash. - Tumwater HS ’07). Johnson finished his sophomore season with 102 tackles and six interceptions . . . Matt Johnson’s twin brother Zach Johnson (Tumwater, Wash. - Tumwater HS ’07) is also back after a blood clot in his leg sidelined him for the entire 2009 season. As freshmen in 2008, the brothers 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.
Ena Moves Back to Linebacker: Sophomore Paul Ena, who played in 2009 as a backup defensive end as a true freshman, started at middle linebacker in the regular season finale against Northern Arizona (11/21/09) and finished with a team-high 16 tackles. He started again in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs against Stephen F. Austin (11/28/09) and had 20 tackles to rank as the sixth-most in recorded school history. He finished the season fifth on the team with a total of 63 tackles.
He was Eastern’s fourth player to be on EWU’s depth chart as a starter at middle linebacker in 2009. Returning starter Zach Johnson did not play because of a blood clot that developed following knee surgery during the summer, then Kyle Wilkins suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice before Eastern’s seventh game. Freshman redshirt Tyler Washburn started four games until he also suffered a knee injury.
Ena was a linebacker at Inglemoor High School in Seattle, finishing his senior season in fall 2008 with 162 total tackles (65 solo, 97 assisted) and two sacks. His father Tali Ena was a standout running back at Washington State University and went on to play for the Seattle Seahawks.
More Position Changes: A total of four returning Eagle letter winners will be changing positions this spring, including defensive lineman-turned-linebacker Paul Ena. Ena took over at that position for the final two games of the 2009 season, and will stay there this season.
Others making a move include Jason Harris from linebacker to tight end, Tyler Hart from running back to wide receiver, Grant Williams from fullback/running back to linebacker and Nick Stewart from offensive line to defensive line. Also, Ray Falelaulii will now be utilized exclusively as a fullback after starting the 2009 season as an offensive lineman and transitioning to that position after several early-season injuries at the running back position.