Eagles continually find ways to replace offensive
Every football season, it seems, the Eastern Washington University football team needs to replace the best offensive players and units in school history.
But somehow, they find a way.
“Our players work on it, even without the coaches even doing anything with them,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “They are continuously trying to be that next great playmaker, and it takes a lot of off-season work to even have a chance at that.”
In the 2013 season, the wide receiver position will be the focal point after EWU lost three receivers who all earned All-America accolades and had 1,000-yard seasons in their careers. The trio of Nicholas Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman combined for 139 games worth of experience (103 starts), and had collective totals of 601 catches for 8,713 yards and 83 touchdowns.
Edwards and Herd were All-Americans in 2011 when they both went over the 1,000-yard mark. Kaufman earned All-America accolades in 2010 when he had over 1,000 yards and in 2012 when he finished with a FCS record 1,850 receiving yards. All three eventually signed free agent contracts with NFL teams.
“We need another group of young receivers,” said Baldwin, whose starting quarterback, Vernon Adams, will be a sophomore next fall. “You can call them inexperienced, but we have some players who are in the program already. Including the players coming in this fall, we’re excited about our next wide receiver group.”
The top returning receiver is senior Ashton Clark, who has 83 catches for 1,091 yards and nine touchdowns in his career. He finished the 2012 season third on the team with 49 grabs for 650 yards and five scores, including a career-high 11 catches versus Southern Utah (10/27/12).
Eastern also returns a trio of other returning letterwinners – senior Daniel Johnson, junior Cory Mitchell and sophomore Shaquille Hill – as well as converted tight end Ryan Seto. Talented redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp is slated as a starter, and Washington State University transfer Blair Bomber adds depth.
Johnson and Hill have combined for 14 career catches for 160 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell, the brother of EWU’s 2011 Walter Payton Award Winner Bo Levi Mitchell, has 23 career grabs for 342 yards and two scores in two seasons as an Eagle. Seto has 14 career catches for 169 yards and two TDs.
“We lost three incredible receivers, but we return a lot of players who have played a lot of football,” Baldwin said. “When you have that, plus a player like Vernon, it will help the transition at the receiver position. Ashton and Cory have a lot of experience within our system, plus we have some other younger players we expect big things out of.”
At quarterback, Adams was a nine-game starter at quarterback for the Eagles and was the FCS Freshman of the Year on the College Sporting News “Fabulous 50” All-America team. He was also on the College Sports Journal Freshman All-America squad, and was one of 20 players on the ballot for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top freshman in FCS by The Sports Network (he finished sixth in the voting, which occurred prior to the playoffs).
In nine games as a starter and three as a sub, Adams completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 1,961 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Adams ranked fourth in FCS in passing efficiency (160.80), and was the only freshman in the top 24 of the rankings. His efficiency rating also ranked fourth all-time in school history.
In addition, he was quick on his feet and finished with 191 rushing yards for the season (4.9 per carry). He had regular season total offense performances of 407 and 356 yards, then had 390 and a school-record six touchdown passes in Eastern’s season-ending 45-42 loss to Sam Houston State. Adams played only the second half as Eastern rallied from a 35-0 halftime deficit to nearly complete the mother of all comebacks.
“The expectations are high, but there are also going to be dips and valleys,” Baldwin said of Adams. “Especially at that position, you are going to have things that don’t go right. The growth I think we are going to see out of Vernon – and it’s a goal of his – is consistency. We know he’s a playmaker, but he wants to be more consistent day-in and day-out, and game-in and game-out. I’m excited to see that.”
Eastern’s other two returning quarterbacks are senior Anthony Vitto and redshirt freshman Jordan West. Vitto has four games of experience, completing 4-of-10 passes for 40 yards.
“We like to see players like Anthony and Jordan pushing, fighting and battling, and that’s only going to make Vernon better,” added Baldwin. “Vernon is working on the little things and trying to do things every step of the way this year better than he did at the same time last year. That’s the mindset he has and that’s how you develop that consistency. He’s already showed he can play at an All-America level – his goal is to work toward playing at an All-America level each week.”
Helping provide more receiving threats and protection for Adams is an experienced group of tight ends. Senior Zack Gehring returns as a 21-game starter, and has caught 25 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns in his career.
Gehring is joined by a pair of returning letterwinners –senior Cody Humphrey and freshman Jake Withnell. Collectively, the tight ends caught 18 passes for 281 yards for the season, including Seto’s squad-leading nine catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Also at tight end is converted defensive lineman Zach Chapman, non-lettering squad member Terry Jackson II and redshirt freshman Alex Pond.
All of Eastern’s running backs return in 2013, and the Eagles hope to continue the improvement made in its running game in 2012. The Eagles ranked 90th in FCS with an average of 123.1 yards per game, but in 2011, Eastern was just 112th out of 120 FCS teams with an average of 79.0 per game.
Three of Eastern’s returning running backs – senior Demitrius Bronson, junior Mario Brown and junior Quincy Forte– have started at least five games in their careers and have combined for 1,842 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing, and have caught 72 passes for another 637 yards and three TDs. And those don’t even include the numbers for Jordan Talley – 631 yards and eight TDs rushing, and 33 catches for 241 yards receiving – who was converted to linebacker in the spring.
Juniors Cody Hecker and Nick Washburn are two other letterwinners returning, and, along with redshirt freshmen Jabari Wilson and Jalen Moore, add depth to that experienced corps of backs.
Forte has 867 career rushing yards and 360 from receptions. Bronson has 493 career rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and Brown has added 482 yards on the ground and 226 receiving with a total of three TDs.
Both Talley and Brown redshirted the 2012 season, paving the way for Forte and Bronson to get the majority of snaps. Forte finished with 597 yards, two touchdowns and a 4.7 average per rush. Bronson was the team’s short-yardage back, and had 472 yards and 11 TDs.
Only once in 2011 did Eastern have more than 139 yards rushing in a single game, but in 2012 EWU had performances of 290 (North Dakota), 254 (Cal Poly), 206 (Weber State) and 162 (Idaho). The 290 yards versus UND are Eastern’s most since it had 307 versus Montana-Western in 2007, and the most versus a FCS opponent since running for 295 against Weber State in 2004.
Experience and staying healthy along the offensive line were big reasons why Eastern’s running game improved in 2012. In 2013, EWU returns four of its five starting offensive linemen, including a pair of players who were injured early and lost for the 2011 season. Seniors Ashton Miller (ruptured Achilles) and guard Steven Forgette (broken fibula) returned to start all 14 games in 2012, as did senior Brandon Murphy. The fourth returning starter is sophomore Clay DeBord, who started 13 games as a redshirt freshman.
In all, Eastern has nine returning letterwinners on the offensive line. The returning starters have a collective total of 82 career starts, led by Forgette’s 31. Three others – Drew Reynolds, Jace Butorac and T.J. Boatright – have 11 starts between them. Cassidy Curtis and Aaron Neary are the other two letterwinners back, joining a group of offensive linemen that include four non-lettering squad members (Jay Deines, Jordan Ellisen, Thomas Gomez and David Delgado), and a pair of redshirt freshmen (Will Boule and Jerrod Jones).
“Whenever you have experience at seven or eight spots, the new players will always be able to perform better and work in the system easier when they have that great leadership and experience around them,” Baldwin said of the supporting cast for Adams and the new wide receivers.