Eagles eager to fill holes and roles, as annual ritual or replacing personnel is an opportunity for youth and new talent to emerge in the Eastern Football program
In the Eastern Washington University football program, players wait their turn – and there is no such thing as a panic button.
Thus, despite the annual ritual of filling holes – with some of them more gaping than others at the conclusion of the 2012 season -- the Eagles see it as an opportunity for others to fill new roles.
Head coach Beau Baldwin, who enters his sixth season at the helm, has 48 returning letterwinners back for the 2013 season, including 25 on offense and 21 on defense, plus a punter and a kicker. There is also a solid group of freshmen who redshirted in 2012, as well a strong group of incoming players joining the team when practices begin in August.
“Every year is like that, and it’s exciting to see the new youth and talent we have in our program,” Baldwin said excitedly. “We’ve seen them do things on the practice field, but maybe the public hasn’t had the opportunity to see them much.”
Among the returning letterwinners are seven starters on offense and 5 1/2 on defense. All-American linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, All-America cornerback T.J. Lee and All-America offensive guard Steven Forgette are back, as well as three others who earned Freshman All-America accolades -- quarterback Vernon Adams, safety Jordan Tonani and return specialist Shaquille Hill.
The Eagles lost all three of their starting wide receivers, three of four starting defensive linemen and a pair of starting linebackers. But at each position, EWU has plenty of returning letterwinners, plus a strong group of redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings.
A total of 33 players with 301 career starts return for the 2013 season, including 174 starts by 19 players on offense and 127 starts by 14 players on defense. In 2012, the Eagles returned 40 players with a combined 348 starts between them, and ended up finishing 11-3 overall and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. But in EWU’s national championship season in 2010, a total of just 24 players with starting experience (total of 196 starts) returned.
“Even though we have positions with a lot of experience returning, there are a lot of players battling – there is competition throughout our team,” Baldwin said. “If you are able to build a program that puts out a good product and consistently wins season after season, you need to end up with competition. Otherwise, you’ll never meet the goals of your program.”
Eastern not only hopes to, but expects to, remain relevant in the chase to the FCS title. The Eagles are one of just five schools in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision to advance to the playoffs six times in the last nine seasons (2004-2012), and EWU hopes to add to that this year. Eastern’s 2012 season ended with a 45-42 loss to Sam Houston State in the semifinals, denying the Eagles a repeat trip to Texas to play for the NCAA Division I title they won in 2010.
Eastern, which ranked fourth in the final regular season Sports Network Top-25 poll and was seeded second in the playoffs, finished the 2012 season 11-3. It was the fourth 10+ win season in school history (joining the 2010, 1997 and 1967 squads), and came on the heels of EWU’s sixth Big Sky Conference Championship in football.
“Our goals were, and they will be this year, to take games one at a time,” said Baldwin, whose team has regular season games scheduled against Oregon State, Toledo and Sam Houston State early in the 2013 season. “Winning the Big Sky is first, but we are still going to think in terms of winning the whole thing. We always will. If you are not thinking that way, then why are you doing it? That’s my approach, and that’s my opinion. I know our players would say the same.”
Standing in the way of yet another league title and playoff berth are a lot of road miles this fall to some of the toughest football venues in America. The Eagles visit two bowl teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, as well as travel to the two-time NCAA Football Championship Subdivision runner-up. For the first time in school history, Eastern’s regular season will include 12 games.
Eastern, which finished 11-3 last season and advanced to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs, opens the season Aug. 31 at Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore. Two weeks later, the Eagles travel to Ohio to play Toledo, then EWU plays at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, on Sept. 28.
Collectively, those three opponents were 29-12 overall and won 16 of 17 games at home. The lone home loss was OSU’s 48-24 setback to national powerhouse Oregon, which EWU plays in 2015. Oregon State and Toledo both lost in bowl games last season, while SHSU defeated EWU in the playoffs to advance to the championship game in FCS, where the Bearkats lost to North Dakota State 39-13.
“That’s been a consistent theme in many seasons, but that is what we want and our players want,” Baldwin explained. “Our team can’t wait to play FBS schools. There is a common theme for us to have a tough, difficult beginning to the season – for a lot of teams at our level that is common.
“Our players are excited about the challenge at Oregon State, and that’s all we really need to focus on,” he continued. “But after that, we play Western Oregon at home, go out to Toledo and then have a re-visit with Sam Houston State. It’s going to be a challenging month before we even enter a challenging league schedule.
“Bigger than that is to focus on ourselves,” he continued. “The way you can handle a challenging schedule or a tough season is improving in what we do and not get caught up with one or two games on our schedule. We need to improve on what we do so that we are consistently doing the right things to be successful each week. That is going to be the best way to put us in a good position at the end of the year.”