Despite offensive success, another national title run hinges on improvements in several areas and replacement of 22 talented players who combined for 408 starts
Deep December runs are nice, but the Eagles want to make the jump to January.
The Eastern Washington University football team has advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but have come up empty in their quest to get back to the title game the Eagles won in 2010.
Coming up a tad short will provide the motivation, and 11 returning starters and a total of 45 returning letterwinners will provide the talent to help EWU return to Frisco, Texas, in January to conclude the 2014 FCS season.
Six starters are back on offense and another five on defense, plus the team's punter and long snapper. The 45 returning letterwinners include 22 on offense, 21 on defense and two on special teams. The Eagles return 12 players who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors, including a trio of returning All-Americans.
The 25 lost letterwinners included 13 defensively, 11 offensively and the team's kicker. Eastern's 22 seniors combined for 847 games worth of experience, and had 408 starts between them. A total of 13 finished their careers as four-year letterwinners. More importantly, they helped Eastern win an unprecedented three Big Sky Conference titles in four seasons, 27-of-32 Big Sky Conference games and 42 games overall the last four seasons. A total of 18 were a part of EWU's NCAA Division I Championship in 2010.
Head coach Beau Baldwin returns for his seventh season at the helm knowing there is great room for improvement on both sides of the ball, most notably improving his team's turnover margin and red zone efficiency. Continued consistency offensively and continued improvement in pass defense are also on his wish list.
But he loves the depth and talent of his team in hopes of getting that accomplished.
"That's a tribute to our assistant coaches and our program in general, and the hard work we've put in to build that," Baldwin said. "By taking a long-term approach to recruiting, it's helped build that foundation and consistency of truly re-loading. That was started years ago by previous coaches in our program.
"On top of that, the culture of our locker room is that our players do a great job of showing and teaching younger players this is how we do it," he continued. "When you are doing the right things in the weight room and the classroom, you don't have a lot of attrition and our players make it from year one all the way to years four or five. That's the way you end up with big senior classes."
With the most prolific offense in school history, the Eagles rolled to a 12-3 record in the 2013 season, including the school's first ever perfect 8-0 run through the Big Sky Conference. It was the fifth season in school history with 11 or more wins (joining the 2012, 2010, 1997 and 1967 squads), but the first in back-to-back seasons.
Eastern finished the season ranked fourth in FCS in total offense (533.5 per game), fourth in passing (349.8) and seventh in scoring (39.5). However, Eastern found itself with a turnover margin that ranked 59th out of 122 FCS squads, with 27 takeaways and 26 giveaways. Additionally, Eastern's red zone offense was 38th and red zone defense was 81st – fine marks for most teams but not to the level EWU needs in order for the Eagles to make a bona fide run to the national title.
"We are going to make it more of an emphasis – it's not just about talking about it or putting it on the wall," Baldwin explained. "You have to include it more in your practices, and that's what we want to do in both areas. We've done a solid job, but we want to take it to another level and maybe even spend more time than we have in the past in terms of the red zone and turnovers.
"There are definitely things we can do in terms of putting those situations in play in practices," he added. "From an individual standpoint, we are going to do some ball security and turnover drills, and crank those up to another level."
Back for the Eagles will be junior quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who was runner-up for the Payton Award given to the top player in FCS. He finished second in the nation in total offense (373.3 per game), with school and Big Sky record totals of 5,559 yards of offense (second in FCS history), 4,994 passing yards (third) and 55 touchdown passes (third). His passing efficiency rating of 183.13 led the nation, ranks fourth all-time in FCS and broke EWU and Big Sky records.
Sophomore wide receiver Cooper Kupp accounted for numerous school, conference and FCS records with a sensational debut season of 93 catches for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was selected as the recipient of the Jerry Rice Award given to the top freshman in FCS, and also was a unanimous first team All-America selection in FCS.
All-America linebacker Ronnie Hamlin headlines the returning defensive players after a successful appeal to the NCAA to receive his sixth year because of two previous seasons wiped out because of injuries. Defensive end Samson Ebukam joined Kupp as a Freshman All-America selection and also returns.
Eastern's other 2013 All-Americans have both graduated -- senior cornerback T.J. Lee III and senior center Ashton Miller.
The greatest competition for starting positions will be in the secondary where three starters were lost, including a pair of cornerbacks. But that's not the only area where players are battling for spots on the depth chart.
"The rest of our positions are similar – there is competition everywhere," said Baldwin. "There isn't a position where we lost a ton of players, but every position is going to have incredible competition top to bottom."
The Eagles have now won the league title seven times in school history and have made 10 appearances in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Eastern ranked third in the final regular season and season-ending polls, and was seeded third in the playoffs. But the season was made even more historic by the way it began. Eastern's 49-46 victory at No. 25 Oregon State on Aug. 31, 2013, was just the fourth time since the division was created in 1978 that a FCS (formerly known as I-AA) team defeated a ranked FBS opponent.
The Eagles broke 49 school, 23 Big Sky and 12 FCS records during the 2013 season. Eastern, the 2010 NCAA Division I Champion, advanced to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs for the third time in the last four years in 2013. Eastern's season came a game short of the title game, as Towson rallied for a 35-31 victory over EWU on Dec. 21, 2013, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles return the top-ranked punter in school history, two prolific kickoff returners and the team's long snapper. However, EWU will feature a new punt returner and new kicker when the 2014 season begins, plus lost first team All-Big Sky Conference special teams performer Bo Schuetzle.
Senior Jake Miller returns with a 43.4 career average per punt that ranks as a school record by more than a yard. He holds down three of the top five single season performances, including a 42.8 average last season to rank fifth. He has 11 punts of 55 yards or more in his career, including a school-record 74-yarder as a sophomore and boots of 66 and 59 yards a year ago.
Junior Shaq Hill, a Freshman All-American in 2012 as a return specialist, has a 24.2 average per kickoff return in his career to rank ninth in school history. Senior Cory Mitchell owns a 17.6 average on 26 career returns.
Senior Cory Alcantar returns as the team's long snapper after winning the job as a junior college transfer in 2013.
Freshman Roldan Alcobendas, who redshirted in 2013 because of a knee injury suffered in soccer, nailed down the starting kicking position in the spring but could be pushed by Miller and Weber State transfer Tyler McNannay. Miller is expected to handle kickoffs.