Rash of injuries in 2011 actually helps Eastern reload to form experienced team capable of contending for the Big Sky title and playoff berth
Despite its injury epidemic in 2011, the Eastern Washington University football team didn’t make excuses.
The Eagles just reloaded for 2012.
Expecting to be in the hunt for the Big Sky Conference title and yet another playoff berth in the NCAA Championship Subdivision, Eastern is hoping for big things from an experienced team that features eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense, with a total of 48 returning letterwinners. And the last time Eastern had a rash of injuries like they did last season, the Eagles parlayed that experience for younger players into the NCAA Division I title in 2010.
“I’m going to be upset if we don’t contend for a Big Sky title – I’m going to be very upset,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, who is entering his fifth year at the helm. “I know every year is a little bit different, but our goal, our mindset and our vision as a program is to reload. We never want to be in the phase where you say you are rebuilding.”
Eastern reloaded at quarterback by obtaining the services of yet another transfer from Southern Methodist University, 21-game starter Kyle Padron. The last transfer from SMU turned out to be pretty good. Bo Levi Mitchell directed EWU to 19 victories, the national title in 2010 and won the Walter Payton Award as a senior in 2011.
Padron will have a talented group of wide receivers to throw to, led by consensus 2011 All-American Nicholas Edwards. All the former walk-on did was catch a school-record 95 passes for 1,250 yards and 19 touchdowns to lead FCS. He is one of three Eagle receivers who enter the 2012 season having won All-America honors and with a 1,000-yard receiving season to their credit.
Eastern also regained the services of linebacker Zach Johnson, who was injured in 2011 and was granted a sixth year by the NCAA to complete four years of eligibility. Johnson had 19 games wiped out, including the entire 2009 season, because of the same knee injury.
In all, a total of 14 starters – seven on each side of the ball – suffered injuries that kept them out of the lineup in 2011, including seven players lost for the season. Eastern stumbled to a 0-4 start, but the Eagles adjusted well to the injury epidemic and won six of their final seven games to finish with the school’s 14th winning season in the last 16 years.
But Eastern fell a victory shy of its sixth playoff berth since 2004. Although the Eagles came up short, EWU is one of just seven schools among the 120 in FCS to have advanced to the playoffs five times in the last eight seasons.
“Regardless of the injuries, we were upset and frustrated with the fact we came up a few games short of contending for a title and a win short of the playoffs,” said Baldwin. “I expect nothing more than the same expectations going into this year. Believe me, that is no easy task in this conference – the Big Sky is only getting better with the addition of teams. Not only that, but some of the teams have improved dramatically over the past few years.”
Besides Johnson, four other injured players return after being lost for the year early in the 2011 season – All-America wide receiver Brandon Kaufman (knee/hand), guard Ashton Miller (Achilles), guard Steven Forgette (broken fibula) and guard Jase Butorac (knee).
Eastern started 46 different players in the 2011 season – 24 on offense and 22 on defense – with only five players starting all 11 games. A total of 21 players made starting debuts during the season, and most of those return for the 2012 campaign.
“We do have a lot of players who have played a lot of football, and that’s sometimes the silver lining with injuries,” explained Baldwin. “We had younger players play a little bit more and sooner than we thought, but we’re better for it this year. A couple of years ago that showed up at the receiver position when Nick Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman all got the opportunity to play as freshmen. That experience helped a great deal heading into the 2010 season.”
Reloaded, as Baldwin likes to say.
“It’s one thing to say and a tougher thing to do, but that is going to be our mindset every year,” he added of his team’s lofty goals of returning to national prominence. “But there are a lot of pieces in place to at least work toward that becoming a reality.”
2012 Football Season Outlook: OFFENSE
Kyle Padron following in Bo Levi Mitchell’s footsteps again
Welcome to the Eastern Washington University football program Kyle Padron.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback passed for 5,902 yards and 41 touchdowns in his 24-game career at SMU, and led the Mustangs to a 12-9 record in his 21 games as a starter. He was 5-1 as a freshman, as SMU’s late-season surge helped it beat Nevada 45-10 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Padron passed for a school-record 460 yards and two touchdowns to earn Hawaii Bowl MVP honors, then started all 14 games as a record-breaking sophomore (7-7 record).
Eventual Walter Payton Award winner Bo Levi Mitchell was injured in the 2009 season at SMU and transferred to EWU after Padron secured the starting job mid-way through his freshman season. The same thing happened in 2011 to Padron, who suffered ankle and back injuries and was replaced in the lineup by J.J. McDermott for the final 11 games of the year.
Padron wasn’t able to transfer to EWU until the summer, so that left all the spring practice snaps to junior-to-be Anthony Vitto and multi-dimensional Vernon Adams, who was a true freshman last fall. They had nearly identical statistics throwing the ball in EWU’s four scrimmages, with Vitto completing 40-of-70 passes (57 percent) for 506 yards, three interceptions, six touchdowns and a passing efficiency rating of 137.6. Adams was 47-of-69 (68 percent) for 500 yards, no interceptions and three scores, and had a rating of 143.3. Adams, however, scrambled his way for 73 rushing yards to finish the spring as the team’s leading rusher.
“It just adds to the overall competition at the position,” explained Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin of the addition of Padron. “Vernon and Anthony received more snaps than any two quarterbacks ever had in the spring. That includes Bo, Matt Nichols (2006-2009), Erik Meyer (2002-05) – all of those players had three or four players with them to share playing time. Both Vernon and Anthony got better as the spring went along. That will only add to the competiveness this summer and when we begin in the fall.”
Mitchell himself knows that Eastern’s 2012 quarterback will be blessed with one of the top receiving corps in all of college football.
Six players return with experience, including senior Nicholas Edwards, senior Greg Herd and junior Brandon Kaufman. That trio has combined for 99 games worth of experience (69 starts), and have collective totals of 405 catches for 5,475 yards and 56 touchdowns.
Other players who lettered in the 2011 season at wide receiver were Ashton Clark (33 catches for 436 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore), Cory Mitchell (19 catches for 310 yards and two TD as a freshman) and Daniel Johnson (two catches for 13 yards as a sophomore).
“I would give anything I could to come back and play with these guys again,” Mitchell said in January after he won the Payton Award. “You have three 1,000-yard receivers, who are All-Americans and have set records. Plus you have my brother, Ashton Clark and Daniel Johnson all coming back. It’s a group of receivers I can put the ball anywhere and they will go make plays. The quarterback next year has to really be drooling knowing they have such a talented receiving corp to throw to.”
“It’s exciting to have that much experience and talent at that position,” added Baldwin. “But at the same time, they have to continue to do a great job, be team players and understand that the goal of the group is much bigger than any goals individually. Our receivers are not only talented, but they are hard-working and have great character. They are most concerned about the success of the team.
Kaufman, an All-America receiver during EWU’s national championship season in 2010, redshirted the 2011 season after suffering hand and knee injuries early in the year. That opened the door for Edwards to earn unanimous All-America honors, and for Herd to become EWU’s third 1,000-yard receiver and All-American in two seasons.
“It makes us want to have three footballs on the field,” said Baldwin of EWU’s receiver contingent. “It makes it tough for opponents to identify who is going to get the ball – you can’t do it. As a group we’re that much stronger. It forces a defense to cover the entire field and not really be able to decide to try to shut one person down or cloud somebody in coverage. If teams start doing that, a couple of our other receivers will do really well.”
Herd had 1,022 yards (67 catches, seven touchdowns) in 2011, and Kaufman had 1,214 yards (76 catches, 15 touchdowns) in 2010.
“Our receivers are getting a lot of attention, and deservingly so,” Baldwin added. “We have three players who have put up incredible numbers, and beyond that we have four other players who have all contributed. That position is not only loaded with a few All-Americans, but it’s also very deep with veteran players.
“We expect a lot of leadership out of that position,” he continued. “Our expectations are extremely high, but they’ve set the bar high at that position. Other players before them have also set the bar very high, so we don’t expect anything but greatness. That’s the way they want it, but they work at it and that’s what they expect.”
Eastern’s offensive line also has an embarrassment of riches from an experience standpoint. Of the 10 players who started at that position in 2011, six of them return, led by a pair of Big Sky Conference honorable mention selections in senior tackle Will Post (6-6, 295) and junior guard Steven Forgette (6-4, 300). The others are junior guard Drew Reynolds (6-1, 290), junior center/guard Ashton Miller (6-2, 300), sophomore guard Jase Butorac (6-3, 285) and junior guard Brandon Murphy (6-4, 295).
Miller (Achilles), Butorac (knee) and Forgette (knee) were all injured early in the year and missed most of the season. As a result, Eastern converted a tight end to play as a center, and Murphy moved over from defense in the middle of a game to help fortify the dwindling numbers of offensive linemen.
“It was a unique year for the offensive line because of all the young players that played,” said Baldwin. “We had players who we didn’t expect to start at all end up starting six, seven or eight games. Coming off of that, I think it’s only going to make us stronger.
“We have an incredible leader at right tackle in Will Post,” he continued. “After that we have a lot of solid players in terms of leadership. We have a lot of talent at that position and haven’t had a chance to show it completely because of the injuries and those players not getting to play every game. But now we have a lot of players with a lot of great experience. Even though it made things tough at times in 2011, hopefully it strengthens us in the future.”
Eastern also has lots of experience at tight end, with junior Zack Gehring (6-4, 245) returning as a starter, sophomore Ryan Seto (6-5, 230) back after a redshirt season and junior Cody Humphrey (6-5, 260) getting lots of action after moving from the offensive line. Gehring led the tight ends by catching six passes for 63 yards in 2011, and had 12 catches for 173 yards and two scores in 2010.
But because those three players were injured in the spring, freshmen Jake Withnell (6-5, 225) and Terry Jackson II (6-4, 250) received the majority of action.
“Tight end is going to absolutely be a battle,” Baldwin predicted. “We have three players returning, plus Jake and Terry received all the snaps in the spring. So we have a lot of competition for the position. That’s the way I look at it, and they need to take the approach that it’s going to be a battle. We can throw a lot of things up on the depth chart, so it’s going to come down to who works hard in the summer, who stays healthy, and who has a great camp. We’ll go into week one and see where we are, but I’m excited.”
Eastern has four veteran running backs who have all seen starting action for the Eagles. That group includes no seniors, and each of the four players – junior Demitrius Bronson, junior Mario Brown, sophomore Quincy Forte and sophomore Jordan Talley – started at least one game. Talley, who started six games and rushed for a team-high 413 yards and five touchdowns, is listed as the returning starter.
Forte rushed for 270 yards and a touchdown in 2011, and also caught 20 passes for 215 yards and a score. Brown added 141 yards and a score on the ground, a year after rushing for 341 yards and a TD during EWU’s run to the national title. Bronson, a transfer from the University of Washington, finished the 2011 season with 26 yards on 14 carries, and also played fullback for the Eagles.
“There are a lot of players there that played a lot of football,” said Baldwin. “They all have performed well and have been our featured back. They are battling and we’ll let that play out. We have a four-player battle, but at the same time it’s a unit. They are making each other better and we’ll need all four of those players this season at the running back position.”
2012 Football Season Outlook: DEFENSE
With 24 letterwinners back, defense even more experienced than the offense
If you think the offense for the Eastern Washington University football team is experienced, try the defense.
While the offense returns a total of 20 letterwinners, the defense has 24 back in 2012. Other than losing a pair of key players in the secondary and three defensive linemen, the Eagles have depth galore throughout the defensive units.
“We are very solid at almost every position defensively from an experience standpoint,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We want to keep creating and building more depth, so there are going to be some young players who will add to our depth and create even more competition.”
Although also ravaged by injuries, there is definitely room for improvement after the Eagles ranked 101st out of 120 FCS schools in total defense, surrendering an average of 411.9 yards per game. Eastern allowed 213.2 yards rushing per game, and only 10 schools in FCS allowed more.
“The expectation is that we are going to be better in all areas defensively,” Baldwin said. “And there is no reason why we shouldn’t be.”
Eastern’s defensive line returns honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference end Paul Ena (6-2, 240), who finished his junior campaign in 2011 with 48 tackles and three sacks. Another end, senior Jerry Ceja, had a team-leading 5 1/2 sacks and finished with 21 tackles total.
Inside, senior Evan Cook (6-3, 280) and Washington transfer Andru Pulu (6-2, 290) are the top prospects to start at tackle. Cook had seven tackles in 2011 while Pulu sat out.
Other returning letterwinners along the defensive line include junior David Gaylord (6-4, 245), junior Will Katoa (6-0, 285), sophomore Evan Day (6-3, 245) and sophomore Dylan Zylstra (6-4, 225). Converted linebacker Jakob Pugsley (6-3, 240) is also now on the defensive line.
“We believe that the defensive line is a position where we are going to load up with very talented players and lots of bodies,” said Baldwin. “Year-in and year-out, you are only going to go as far as the groups up front are going to take you on both sides of the ball. If you have a lot of depth and great talent on the defensive line, it usually gives you more opportunities to win ballgames.”
Nine returning letterwinners are back at linebacker, led by Zach Johnson, a 2010 second team All-Big Sky Conference selection. He enters his senior season having started all 30 of the career games he has played, with current career totals of 260 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and 12 passes broken up.
However, because Johnson was lost early in the 2011 season, the returning starting linebackers are listed as junior Ronnie Hamlin, junior J.C. Agen and sophomore Cody McCarthy. Hamlin led the team with 85 tackles, McCarthy had 41 and Agen finished with 30. Johnson had 34 in four games.
Also returning is senior Grant Williams, who was third on the team with 61 tackles in 2011. Senior Tyler Washburn battled a knee injury and had only 20 tackles in 2011, but he finished his sophomore season with 54 and had 41 as a freshman in 2009.
The other returning letterwinners at linebacker are seniors Rusty Haehl, Chase King and Scott Burgett, and sophomore John Goldwire. They provide experience, especially on special teams.
“That’s another position where a lot of young players received the opportunity to play,” said Baldwin. “We expect that position to definitely perform at a much higher level than they did last year because of both the talent that is there and the experience that was gained by the younger players.”
In the secondary, Eastern is replacing a starting cornerback (Alden Gibbs) and one of three players who shared the starting safety positions last year (Matt Johnson, now with the Dallas Cowboys). Junior cornerback T.J. Lee III and safeties Jeff Minnerly and Allen Brown return to starting positions, but after that, Eastern is still determining the other five players who will see the majority of action for the Eagles and help contribute on special teams.
Minnerly, who has earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors each of the last two seasons, ranked second on the team with 77 tackles in 2011. He has also earned a variety of athletic and academic awards at Eastern, and the former quarterback enters his senior season with 127 total tackles, four interceptions, eight passes broken up, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss.
Brown, a junior in 2012, ranked fifth on the team with 51 tackles in 2011. Lee was a first team All-Big Sky selection a year ago, finishing the season with 48 tackles, a pair of interceptions and one pass broken up.
Other returning letterwinners in the secondary include junior Ronald Baines, sophomore Isaiah Jenkins and junior Bo Schuetzle. Several newcomers are expected to compete for playing time as well.
“The competition is going to be great on the back end,” said Baldwin. “We are still trying to find the 10 defensive backs who travel and help us on special teams. From there we’ll determine who is starting and rotating in. My answer heading into the summer might be a lot different as it will be in August. We’ll see how the players perform in the summer and in camp. But we have some definite experience and players coming back who have played a lot of football.”
2012 Football Season Outlook: SPECIAL TEAMS & SCHEDULE
Eastern returns punter and snapper, but accuracy of Mike Jarrett will be hard to replace
The Eastern Washington University football team is out to make its special teams unit just that: special.
The squad is headlined by punter Jake Miller, who nearly set a school record with a 44.2 average per punt in the 2011 season. He was named to the College Sports Journal Freshman All-America Team and earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades for his sensational debut season. He would have ranked third in FCS had he met the minimum number of punting attempts to qualify.
“I think we’ll continue to watch Jake grow and blossom,” predicted Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “He still has a very high ceiling of how good he can be. We’ve seen him boot some big ones, but when he develops his consistency it’s going to be special. He already has the big leg, the body and the frame it takes.”
At kicker, Eastern loses senior Mike Jarrett after he broke EWU’s career record for kick scoring (236) and the single season record for field goals (16). An impressive 16-of-18 (88.9 percent) kicking field goals in the 2011 season, Jarrett will be replaced by either senior Jimmy Pavel or junior Kevin Miller. Pavel handled kickoff duties for the Eagles in 2011, and Miller held the job the two previous seasons when he also made 2-of-3 field goals.
“It’s going to be tough to fill Mike Jarrett’s shoes after making nearly 90 percent of his field goals last year,” said Baldwin. “But we’ll have a nice competition between Jimmy and Kevin. They’ve both handled kickoff duties, but neither of them have had a lot of field goal experience. I’m excited about the battle at the kicker position. Even going into last year it was a battle for Mike, so it’s never set in stone.”
Eastern also returns one of the league’s premier long snappers in senior Jake Potter. Potter is inconspicuous, which means he’s good, laughs Baldwin.
“It’s kind of nice when you forget about your long snapper, because that means they are so consistently good that you don’t notice them,” he said. “When you aren’t thinking about them, that’s usually a good thing.
“He needs to keep working, he needs to keep improving his craft and we want to see his snap times get better,” Baldwin continued, “but he’s improved already with all the situations he’s been put in. You forget about him because he’s out there doing his job.”
Eagles play two schools from right down the road, otherwise, schedule feels the same
Featuring an early-season schedule with a familiar feel to it, Eastern will open the 2012 season with three road games and a bye. The Eagles begin the 2012 season at former Big Sky Conference rival Idaho, then return to the Palouse a week later to face Washington State and new head coach Mike Leach.
“Our players love playing these games – we all do,” said Baldwin. “And this year we’re playing two schools right down the road, all covered by the same newspapers, radio and television. It’s fun, it’s interesting and it’s different – most likely we won’t be in this situation again with taking two bus rides to FBS schools. I know the fans are all talking about it, and they are looking forward to it to.”
After a bye in the schedule, Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play at Weber State against former EWU assistant coach Jody Sears. Finally, on Sept. 29, the Eagles will play their home opener versus Montana at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Two years ago, in the debut of EWU’s red Sprinturf surface in the first game at the re-named field (it was formerly Woodward Field), the Eagles knocked off the Grizzlies 36-27. A year ago, Eastern opened the season with road losses to Washington and South Dakota, then began league play with a loss at Montana and a home setback to Montana State. However, the Eagles won six of their last seven games to conclude the season with their 14th winning season in the last 16 years.
“We’re usually going to have a juggernaut or a couple of juggernauts right from the get-go,” said Baldwin. “We’ve had schedules like this all the years I’ve been here – it’s kind of par for the course. It mentally tests us and is what we’ve come to expect. When you push yourself through a difficult early-season schedule, it sets you up for success in your conference. If you earn the chance to play beyond your conference schedule in the playoffs, you’ll be battle-tested. We’re excited about the schedule, but it’s not all that different than what we’ve played in the years I’ve been here.”
For the Eagles, early success in the fall will be determined by how hard the Eagles worked independently in the summer. The first full-team practice for the Eagles took place on Wednesday, Aug. 8.
“Our players do a great job practicing all summer on their own, but they don’t have somebody talking to them about fundamentals and technique every day,” Baldwin explained. “Although you are working hard, sometimes you lose a little bit of that in the summer.
“From the start of practice we will need to clean-up some of the little things and fundamentals,” he added. “From there, we want to progressively implement what we want to do. Every year is different, because we are going to implement certain things based on where we have the most talent and where our strengths are. You make adjustments in your scheme. We were able to learn a lot in the spring, and now we’ll build upon that and tweak a few things.”