What's in the past is in the past for the Eagles, but 15 starters and 54 total letter winners are back from national championship season
What can the Eagles do for an encore?
Whatever that may be, what's in the past is in the past for the Eastern Washington University football team.
The Eagles enter the 2011 season as the defending NCAA Division I Champions after finishing the 2010 campaign with 11-straight victories and a final record of 13-2. But since beating Delaware 20-19 in the title game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas, there has been only one win-loss record fourth-year Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin has concerned himself with -- 0-0.
"Anything you've done the year before -- whether it's good or bad -- isn't going to have a direct effect on the present season," he explained. "If we would have struggled last year, we wouldn't have gone into the offseason thinking we would struggle again. Just because we did extremely well last season, you can't come in thinking we are going to do that well again."
The Eagles return 54 letter winners from last year's team, including eight offensive starters and another seven on defense. Five All-Americans and a total of 10 players who earned All-Big Sky Conference accolades are among the returning players.
"It starts over again no matter what it says on paper and whatever comments are made that we look better entering 2011 than we did in 2010. That doesn't matter in terms of the success we have on the field. Our players are very mature in handling that and understand we still have to work hard and look for short-term goals."
Eastern will be defending the Big Sky Conference title it shared last season with Montana State, a team the Eagles will host on Sept. 24 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The Eagles open the season with three-straight road games, including non-conference games at Washington (Sept. 3) and South Dakota (Sept. 10), and EWU's league opener at perennial power Montana (Sept. 17).
"We know darn well that it is hard," said Baldwin of replicating the success his team had in 2010. "It is hard work in the offseason. It's hard work to win the non-conference games we have on our schedule. And it's hard to win any Big Sky Conference game, let alone trying to win the league title. All of those little goals we have along the way are tough to accomplish, so they are really huge goals. We have to be excited about them and strive to achieve them."
Eastern has only four home games on its 2011 schedule, but home or away, Baldwin knows the Eagles have a target on their back.
"The reality is our opponents will be up for us more than they ever have before," he said. "All of a sudden, now we will see their very best efforts every Saturday. We have a tough task ahead of us. Week-by-week, every game will be tough."
Turnover margin will again be a key to success in 2011. The Eagles ranked first nationally in interceptions (total of 26) and turnovers gained (47), and finished 17th nationally in turnover margin (.80 less turnovers per game than its opponents) after ranking sixth in 2009 (1.25 less). In the last two years, Eastern is 14-0 when it has fewer turnovers than its opponent, including an 8-0 record in 2010.
Magnifying the importance of turnover margin was the fact that in four-straight games in the FCS Playoffs, Eastern played a team ranked in the top seven nationally in turnover margin. Collectively, Eastern forced more turnovers (13) than it committed (10) in those four victories.
"It's right there in front of you," said Baldwin. "When you start getting into the playoffs and look at the teams that made it that far, you see what they all have in common are really good turnover margins. That is still the statistic that means the most to us, and it's what we stress the most to the team. It determines your win-loss record more than any other statistic. It's something we emphasize on both sides of the ball, and we'll hit upon it in the spring and again in the fall. You have to try to simulate it and mentally get it into your head during practices. You have to work on drills, but as much as anything, it has to be such a focus mentally that you believe you are going to win that battle week-after-week."
Eastern was only 60th among 117 FCS teams in scoring defense in 2010, allowing an average of 24.9 points per game. But the Eagles still relied heavily on its defense to come up with big plays, big stops and big turnovers en route to the national title.
"We feel very strongly about our team being very balanced all the way through our lineup and having weapons in all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams," said Baldwin. "But we feel like when times are tough and things aren't going right, we have a defense we can really lean on. That's always exciting for a head coach and gives you a feeling of comfort.
"It takes a balanced team -- a team that is strong in all facets of the game -- to win championships," he continued. "But if you are deficient in an area like defense, it doesn't matter how good you are on offense or special teams. When you are good and stout on defense, sometimes it allows you to be deficient a little bit in some other areas and still allow you to win or even stay in games."
Most importantly, the Eagles have experience throughout its defensive lineup -- eight letter winners are back on the defensive line, six linebackers return and a whopping 12 defensive backs return.
"We're excited," said Baldwin on the prospects of having seven defensive starters and a total of 26 letter winners returning on that side of the ball. "The comment is always made that defense wins championships, and that's great. Defenders should absolutely think that way and feel that way, because they get put in a lot of situations where it comes down to them. Just like the last drive and last play in the national championship game came down to the defense."
The Eagles had a bend but don't break mentality in the 2010 season. The Eagles may have ranked 104th out of 117 FCS teams in passing defense (239.3 yards per game), but the Eagles were also 26th in passing efficiency defense (134.8). Eastern was only 86th in total defense (378.9), but finished sixth nationally in red zone defense, as it allowed just 38 scores in 58 opponent trips inside the Eagle 20-yard line. Eight of those scores were field goals, including two in the first half of the national championship game.
"It's a combination of both mental and physical toughness," said Baldwin. "What's important is not what happened to get them down to that point, but what can we do to keep them out of the end zone. That's the approach we take, but it's also a matter of practicing it. We try to put our players in as many game-type situations they can be in. That is one of the things that has helped us in certain areas, and we try to spend a good deal of time in the red zone. They are used to being down there because they've done it so many times in practices."
Along the defensive line, senior Renard Williams (6-2, 300), junior Paul Ena (6-4, 245) and sophomore David Gaylord (6-4, 245), return as starters. But also back are all of Eastern's backups from last season, as the Eagles rotate linemen continually during games.
"We're going to have nine or 10 players, when it's all said and done, that are going to play and contribute," said Baldwin. "Aside from Renard getting most of the attention up front, we have a number of players who have played at very young ages and will improve this year. We expect drastic improvement from every player and we were already pretty darn good up there. Hopefully that can really trigger us into having one of the best defensive lines we've ever seen here."
Williams earned All-America honors in 2010 and is a two-time first team All-Big Sky Conference selection. He had 54 total tackles with 6 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles, as a junior after finishing with nine as a sophomore.
"Renard has gifts that I've never seen at this level," said Baldwin. "We expect him to have the best year of his career as a senior."
Eastern's other letter winners returning on the defensive line are junior Jerry Ceja (6-3, 220), junior Evan Cook (6-3, 270), sophomore Will Katoa (6-0, 285), sophomore Anthony Larry (6-3, 250) and senior Charles Moetului (6-3, 235). University of Washington transfer Andru Pulu (6-2, 280) should also figure into the rotation.
At linebacker, the Eagles lose Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt, who finished his illustrious career with a record-breaking 432 tackles. However, back for his third season as a starter is senior Zach Johnson, and junior Tyler Washburn returns for his second year as a starting linebacker.
"Obviously, when you lose J.C., you lose a lot from a leadership standpoint and a talent standpoint," said Baldwin. "That's the challenge of college football -- you try to overcome losses. It doesn't get any bigger than losing a player like J.C., but we've been down that road. We've lost All-Americans before and it happens with every college football team."
Johnson, who missed the 2009 season with a blood clot in his leg, finished the 2010 season second on the team with 134 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and five passes broken up. Washburn was fourth on the team with 86 total stops.
"There is still a lot of experience at that position, with most of it coming from Zach and Tyler," said Baldwin. "But Bobby Gentry has played a lot of football going back to 2008, and we have some younger players who are all fighting for more playing time and even a chance to start. That is going to be a good competitive position, and we expect a lot of production there even with the loss of J.C."
Despite the fact Eastern has 12 returning letter winners in the secondary, there is some concern at cornerback, as both starters were seniors in 2010. The letter winners returning at that position include sophomore Ronald Baines, senior Jeremy Chaten, junior Artise Gauldin, senior Alden Gibbs and sophomore T.J. Lee.
"That is the area where most people are going to place the question mark on the team -- we lost two senior cornerbacks and who is going to replace them?," asked Baldwin rhetorically. "But we love the competition amongst the young cornerbacks, and some of them we started to see get a lot better at the end of the year. I'm excited to see what our younger players are going to do at cornerback and the competition we have at that position."
Eastern's two safety positions are anchored by senior Matt Johnson, who enters the 2011 season with the most starting experience on EWU's entire roster with 38 career starts. He has 289 tackles, 15 interceptions and 13 passes broken up in his career, including 206 tackles, five interceptions and eight passes broken up in 2010.
Despite being inexperienced at safety, former quarterback Jeff Minnerly and sophomore Allen Brown shared the other safety position and impressed Baldwin. Minnerly finished the year with 50 tackles, three interceptions and six passes broken up, and Brown had 39 tackles, one interception and broke-up three passes.
"Matt has played the most football back there and we expect great things from him as a senior," said Baldwin. "He should get votes for team captain and we expect a lot from him from a leadership standpoint.
"It was special to see what Jeff and Allen did last season despite having not played the position before," he continued. "With their work ethic, their effort in the offseason and the approach they take, we believe that both will improve upon on what they did last season."
"It will be fun to see the progress of those three players, and there will be some good battles for the fourth and fifth safeties."
Other returning letter winners at safety are sophomore Billy Lechtenburg, senior Ethen Robinson, sophomore Bo Schuetzle and junior Domonic Shepperd. Lechtenburg and Robinson were both injured and did not play in 2010, and Robinson will need to be granted a sixth-year injury hardship by the NCAA for him to be able to play in 2011.
Besides losing a pair of starting senior co-captains on the offensive side of the ball, Eastern also lost perhaps the most electrifying player in Big Sky Conference history when Taiwan Jones decided to forgo his senior season and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft. The two-time All-American left with a remarkable 7.7 career average per rush and 2,955 yards rushing in just two seasons as a running back. He had 5,021 all-purpose yards and 37 total touchdowns as an Eagle.
"Like with J.C., you are never going to replace a Taiwan Jones -- we know that," admitted Baldwin. "We also graduated a couple of senior captains, so those players will be missed as well. But with all the youth we've had that stepped up and played a lot of football, we feel very good. We expect the players who had big years as young players to improve going into this season. As each individual thinks of what they can do to make themselves a little bit better, then collectively we get better as an offense and an entire team."
Eight starters are back on offense, including a player who a year ago most Eagle fans knew nothing about but now is a household name in FCS football. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell transferred from Southern Methodist to EWU in spring 2010, and quickly won the starting job. He completed 59 percent of his passes to finish with 3,496 yards, a school-record 37 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions as a junior.
"Anytime a quarterback plays for the first time as a starter, it takes time to adjust to the offense, and usually they are better as the year goes along," said Baldwin. "We break down the season a lot of time in thirds, and we wanted to see how did Bo Levi play in the first third, middle third and last third. He got better with each grouping. That's common for a quarterback in a new system, so he's only going to get better as head into the new season.
"His consistency will improve because of the experience, as he understands the system better," Baldwin added. "I'm absolutely excited about the type of season Bo can put together. He's going to work hard to have his best season -- he knows it's his senior season and it goes by quickly."
Although he was inconsistent at times, the most important statistic to Baldwin is the fact Mitchell was 13-2 as a starter at Eastern in 2010. Six times Eastern rallied for victories when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, and most of the time, it was Mitchell who led the Eagles back from the depths of despair.
In addition, Eastern was 3-0 in games when Jones did not play, and Mitchell had 11 touchdowns and 932 total passing yards in those games. Most importantly, he directed Eastern on 11 touchdown drives of at least 63 yards, including three in the national championship game, as he was selected as the game's Most Outstanding Player.
"When there is an adverse situation and things aren't right with the world, he just elevates his play," praised Baldwin. "That could be at the end of the game, or at other times when the team or Bo struggled. Or, it was when we had to go into a game without our best offensive player like we faced against Weber State, Villanova and Delaware. In those types of situations, he knows he has to do a little bit more -- he can will himself to do that. That takes a lot of confidence and a lot of guts, and Bo has that. That makes him special besides having the physical gifts he has. It was encouraging to see the things he was able to do even without the security of being able to hand the ball to Taiwan 20 or so times."
The other quarterbacks on Eastern's roster include senior Nick Gauthier and sophomore Anthony Vitto, who served as Mitchell's backups in 2010. Also back are senior Scott Burgett and junior Greg Panelli, who redshirted in 2010 after transferring from Modesto Junior College in California.
Protecting the quarterbacks belongs to a group of offensive linemen that gelled as the season progressed. Four starters are back from a squad that turned that improvement into confidence for Mitchell. Eastern quarterbacks were sacked only 24 times, including just seven times in four playoff games.
"Coach (Aaron) Best does a great job of getting our offensive line ready and prepared for games," said Baldwin. "From a protection standpoint, the quarterback feels and recognizes how well the offensive line is doing. Bo started feeling more and more confident because those players up front knew their assignments and knew what they were doing. They did a great job and gave him the time he needed. Delaware, as an example, brought about everything you could think of. But our line at least gave him enough time when they were bringing the house to get his throws off and make some plays."
Senior Gabriel Jackson (6-4, 275) and junior Will Post (6-6, 295) return to starting tackle positions, and sophomore Steven Forgette (6-4, 280) is back at guard. But anchoring the line from both a performance and leadership standpoint is center Chris Powers, who enters his senior season with 27 career starts -- one more than the 26 starts of Jackson.
"We have seen him progress every year," Baldwin said of Powers, a 2010 All-American and first team All-Big Sky selection. "He's another player where the expectation is that his senior season will be the best year of his career. He not only wants to have his best season on the field, but also elevate himself as a leader. We have high expectations for the way Chris will lead us as an offensive unit and up front. We think his production on the field will grow too, which is not easy when you are coming off an All-America season. We believe he will get that done."
Tight end is another position the Eagles rely heavily upon for blocking assistance, and the Eagles return a trio of improving young players in junior Zack Gehring (6-3, 220), sophomore Ryan Seto (6-5, 230) and junior Patrick Mealey (6-2, 260). They were letter winners last year, as well as senior David Miles (6-4, 255), who moved to tight end from the defensive line.
Regardless, Baldwin knows the contributions of 2010 senior starter Matt Martin, who never missed a game in four years as an Eagle, will be hard to replace.
"What he did for our team and our offense goes way beyond the number of catches he had," explained Baldwin. "You can't put a price tag on his value to what we were all about and what we did. So it's going to take our young players to step up and fill that void.
"Seto is going to be better this year because of the playing time he received as a true freshman," Baldwin continued. "Zack Gehring started to really come on in the second half of the season, and he's had a great winter. He has athleticism that is going to enable us to do some things with that position because he's as healthy as he's been. I'm excited about those two going out and competing, and the other tight ends we have coming in.
"Patrick Mealey has a little bit of experience and will be a little better next year," he added. "And it will be exciting to see what David Miles can do. He's been a tight end before, so it's a matter of mentally getting it back."
At the wide receiver positions, Eastern returns three starters -- all juniors in the 2011 season -- who combined for 165 catches for 2,202 yards and 25 touchdowns in the 2010 season. That group is led by junior All-American Brandon Kaufman, who finished his sophomore campaign with 76 grabs for 1,214 yards and 15 scores. After being held in check in the first two playoff games, he had eight catches for 135 yards and a touchdown in the semifinals versus Villanova, and nine grabs for 120 yards and two TD's in the championship win over Delaware.
"Brandon has been an amazing player for us in a short time," praised Baldwin. "He played as a freshman but didn't catch a ton of balls. Playing in 2009 definitely helped give him experience to help him have success in 2010. After that, we still had some young players contribute at a high level."
Nicholas Edwards finished his sophomore season with 57 catches for 614 yards and seven touchdowns, and was such a factor late in the season that he nearly won the Playoffs MVP award from College Sporting News that was given to Kaufman. Edwards caught at least one TD pass in each of EWU's four victories with a total of 26 catches for 281 yards and five scores in the playoffs.
Greg Herd also came on strong at the end of his sophomore season, with 17 catches and three touchdowns in EWU's last five games. He finished the year with 32 catches for 374 yards and three scores.
"Nicholas Edwards played his very best football in the playoffs and sometimes he gets overshadowed because Brandon put up a lot of statistics and was most talked about," Baldwin said. "Greg Herd is another player who was electrifying. He played as a true freshman, most of it on special teams, but it did help him have success and confidence as a sophomore."
Eastern's other returning letter winners at wide receiver include senior Tyler Hart and sophomore Alante Wright, who doubled as EWU's punt returner. Hart, a former Eastern running back, caught 23 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown in his first season as a receiver.
"Tyler will be playing only his second year as a receiver, but in a way he's the most experienced of our receivers because he played for us going back to 2008," said Baldwin. "Because so much of that experience was at the tailback position, he has a chance to get better. Then we have some young players and new guys competing for those fifth and sixth receiver spots.
"That group works at it -- kind of like gym rats in basketball," added Baldwin of his entire wide receiver corp. "They are always doing little things and extra things on their own, and it shows. And it will show up this season because they'll continue to do those things until August."
Running back will be a main focus, as the Eagles will look at as many as eight players in search of a replacement for Jones. Sophomore Mario Brown is the most logical choice, after finishing the 2010 season as his backup. Senior Darriell Beaumonte, a first team All-Big Sky performer on special teams, is the other returning running back who saw significant carries in the 2010 season.
Brown rushed for 341 yards on 100 carries for an average of 3.4 yards per rush with one touchdown as a true freshman in 2010, while Beaumonte added 219 yards on 81 carries for a 2.7 average per rush and two scores as a junior They also combined for 28 catches for 208 yards and two more TDs.
Other letter winners returning are sophomore Daniel Johnson and junior Chase King, who was injured in 2010 and did not play. University of Washington transfer Demitrius Bronson should compete for the starting position, and Eastern will also take a look at several other young players who either redshirted or will compete for a position as true freshmen.
"You see it any level. You better have a solid number of running backs -- at least three of them," said Baldwin. "Mario and Darriell are back with experience, and then bringing in Demitrius Bronson to compete and see what he's all about is going to be a lot of fun. After that, we have a lot of young players and we're excited to see what they can do. When fall camp begins, there could be six to eight players at that position and we'll see how that plays out and see who fits there. We'll definitely have to go into the season with the idea that three, four or maybe even five running backs will have to contribute in one way or another."
Eastern has both of its kickers back from last season. Senior Mike Jarrett was 10-of-19 kicking field goals a year ago, and converted 54-of-55 extra point attempts. Junior Kevin Miller made 2-of-3 with boots of 48 and 44 yards, and also averaged 64.2 yards on 81 kickoffs with 15 touchbacks.
"Michael coming back is exciting, and Kevin showed some improvement in the middle of last season and hit a couple of field goals," said Baladwin. "So it will be exciting to see that battle. Kevin has been kicking off, but we still want them competing against each other every day. That's healthy for that position."
Junior snapper Jake Potter is also back after earning his first letter as a sophomore in 2010. He had three tackles and recovered two fumbles last season, something Baldwin sees as a bonus from the long snapper position.
"We expect Jake to keep getting better, and he's flourished a little bit with our new shield punt scheme," Baldwin explained. "It's really helped him a lot with his accuracy and his confidence just because of what's expected out of him from a blocking standpoint. It allows him to use some of his strong points because he can get downfield and cover."
"Punter is up in the air," admitted Baldwin. "Cameron is the starter on paper coming back, but he hasn't punted in a game. It's going to be a competitive position where there could potentially be two other punters in here competing for that job."