March 30, 2007
Throwing ingredients together just isn't enough.
Finding the right recipe is what the Eastern Washington University football team is trying to do in the 2007 season as it tries to leave behind a disappointing 3-8 finish a year ago.
"There are definitely some hard feelings and a very bad taste in coming off a season we are not accustomed to," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff of his team's finish that included a 3-5 record in Big Sky Conference play. "Nor do we want to accept that. We know there is a lot of room for improvement. Every individual in the program has to take those steps to make progress and have more production."
Eastern returns 47 letter winners, evenly balanced between 23 on defense and 24 on offense. Just 17 letter winners were lost, but 10 of them were starters, including the team's punter and kicker. Of the 14 starters back, eight are on offense and six on defense.
Wulff is hoping that more experience and more leadership will help the Eagles compete for Big Sky titles they shared in both the 2004 and 2005 seasons. However, working hard to improve is foremost on his mind right now.
"Every position, every player and every coach needs more work," he explains. "We can't single out individuals -- and we can't single out any particular position -- because there is room for improvement everywhere. We have to work hard and together to make sure we are all getting better."
One of his first priorities is bringing the offensive and defensive lines back to the production level of the 2004 season when Eastern advanced to the second round of the NCAA Championship Division Playoffs.
"Our line play has to improve," he said. `If you look at our production on our offensive line and our defensive line, those are two areas the last two years that have not played to the level we need them to play to win a championship. We were fortunate to win a championship two years ago even though we felt our offensive and defensive lines didn't play to the level we needed them to. Those units are areas of focus of high importance -- those two units have to get a lot better. "
For the first time in school history, Eastern failed to have at least one player on offense or defense earn first team All-Big Sky Conference honors. But Eastern does return a pair of the best offensive linemen in the league in guard Matt Alfred (6-3, 300) and tackle Rocky Hanni (6-5, 290). Hanni was a first team All-Big Sky and All-America selection in 2004, and Alfred followed suit in 2005. Both earned second team All-BSC honors in 2006 and have started 33 games each.
"Those two guys have played a lot of football here," said Wulff. "They need to play their very best football now, to be quite honest. For us to compete with the elite teams in the conference, those two players just can't have an average year -- they have to have their best year. We need them to play at a high level."
Eastern's third second team All-Big Sky Conference selection returning is fullback Alexis Alexander. A 2001 graduate of nearby Medical Lake High School (Wash.), he made his Eagle debut against Oregon State on Aug. 31 when he played his first football game in six years dating back to his senior season in high school. Previously, he played three seasons of minor league baseball and was a scout team linebacker at Washington State.
"Alexis is a very mature person and has great football savvy and toughness," said Wulff. "He's one of those guys that can help us in a lot of ways. He plays on the majority of all of our special teams and he's very valuable. On offense he also adds great value to us."
Players returning that earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors a year ago include offensive tackle Zach Wasielewski, defensive end Greg Peach, wide receiver Tony Davis and special teams standout Nicholas Ramos.
"If you are going to compete for the upper echelon of the conference race, you have to have players step up and play at a high, high level," added Wulff. "Zach is going into his third year as a starter, and he needs to play at a higher level than he has. Greg Peach needs to step up -- he's played too much football not to be a major factor on this football team and in this conference. Those are just a couple of the players that need to continue to develop and pick up their level of play."
Safeties Gregor Smith and Bryan Jarrett earned All-Big Sky honors previously but missed much of the 2006 season with injuries. Both are seniors this season, and Wulff has high expectations for both of them if they can stay healthy.
"Gregor Smith needs to stay healthy and needs to be playing at the level he needs to be playing at," Wulff said. "He's been nicked up so much in his career that he hasn't been able to play at his fullest. From a productivity standpoint, Bryan has played a lot of football and played at an all-conference clip as a sophomore. He was injured as a junior and had to fight through that. But he's one of those experienced players that need to play his best football this season. When he does, he's a very good football player."
Eastern's defense was spectacular at times in 2006, but certainly wasn't consistent. Eastern allowed 33, 34 and 44 points in three of its five league losses, but allowed just 16 points total -- 0, 6 and 10 -- in its three victories.
"If anything, we need to cut back on what we do," explained Wulff. "We need to simplify some things and go back to some simple football. What we really need to do is execute better."
Jarrett finished with 48 tackles despite missing two games and five starts with an ankle injury. Jarmon had 38 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of passes broken up as an 11-game starter. Three-game starter Gregor Smith had 25 tackles and two interceptions in eight games, but was also injured part of the season.
"We have three veteran players there that have played a lot of football," said Wulff of Jarrett, Jarmon and Smith "They need to help us, and we have some younger players that also need to step up."
Other safeties include Anthony Dotson (20 tackles and two interceptions), Robert Pearson (seven tackles), Kyle Wilkins (two tackles), Kevin Hatch (15 tackles as a cornerback) and 2006 redshirt Ethen Robinson.
"Ira needs to play his football at a higher clip," said Wulff. "All of our cornerbacks really need to step up and fill bigger roles."
Eastern's defensive line features returning starters Greg Peach (42 tackles with 5 1/2 sacks), Lance Witherspoon (29 tackles with two sacks) and Jason Belford (25 tackles with two sacks). Peach and Belford are ends and Witherspoon was a nose guard. A fourth player, Shawn Powell (21 tackles), could move from end and challenge for the vacant tackle position.
Other experienced players returning include Josh Jacobson (eight tackles with one sack) and Jacob Kragt (14 tackles). Wulff also expects big things inside from freshmen redshirts Tyler Jolley and Lorenzo Lomack.
"We have some guys with some experience," said Wulff, "but we also have some younger players that need to step up and play well for us."
Middle linebacker Shea Emry was an eight-game starter a year ago, and Makai Borden received the other three starts at that position. Emry had 46 tackles with 3 1/2 sacks and an interception a year ago, and Borden finished with 28 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
"Shea needs to play more consistent for us," stated Wulff. "He played decent at times, but again, for us to play at a high level as a team, he has to be a better football player. He needs to take that step as a leader and ultimately as a performer. He needs to perform very consistently for us and give us a player we can count on doing the right thing all the time"
At the other inside linebacker position, Marcus Walker and Jared Kuhl each started one game for the Eagles. Walker finished with 19 tackles with 1 1/2 sacks, and Kuhl added 22 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Dezmon Cole has moved from running back to linebacker to give Eastern some added speed and physical play at that position.
"Makai should be a factor in there as well as Jared Kuhl," added Wulff. "Jared is still learning the level of competitiveness you need to play every play, every workout and every repetition. He still has some growing to do. Dezmon gives us some quickness and speed at that position. He also plays physical and has some excellent quickness. Hopefully he can help us on the defensive side."
Plenty of experience returns on the offensive line. In fact, seven players have a combined 114 starts between them. Matt Alfred (33) and Rocky Hanni (33) have started since they were freshmen, Zack Wasielewski (22) has started two seasons and centers Chris Carlsen (11) and Charlie Wulff (10) have started a full season each.
"Chris was injured throughout the year and had slow recovery," said Wulff of EWU's 2005 starter at center. "But we need him to come back and play well, along with Charlie Wulff, who also needs to get better. We need better production at each of our positions on the offensive line."
The other players with starting experience include Julian Stewart (four) and Ryan Forney (one). Stewart, however, had off-season knee surgery and may miss a few early-season games. As a result, backups such as Bryan Smith, Chris Thomas, John Rice and Sean Rock should get valuable repetitions in practice and eventually in games.
"Julian really came on strong last year and was playing well," said Wulff. "Potentially, he is one of our better players. His absence will allow us to play some of the redshirt freshmen and sophomores who really need a chance to play. They need to play a lot better and improve their play so we can count on them to either be a starter or a guy that is going to play a lot of football."
Quarterback Matt Nichols returns after starting Eastern's last 10 games as a redshirt freshman. He completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,749 yards, but had 17 interceptions and just eight touchdowns. Junior Alex Smart played in two games as a backup while freshman Jason Harris redshirted.
"Matt and Alex will both compete," said Wulff. "Matt is the starter right now, but there is a lot of practice in front of us. We're excited to see how Jason does when he gets the opportunity to get some true playing time with units he didn't get a chance to play with in the fall as a redshirt freshman."
"They need to grasp the changes we are going to introduce and just improve," added Wulff of his quarterbacks. "We don't want to change too much because they just learned the system. Whenever you do that, particularly in football, a lot of things come into play. You just can't do things overnight and change that quickly. But we do need to tweak some things and get better."
Eastern averaged just 108 yards per game rushing in 2006, and hopes to improve those numbers considerably this season. A trio of experienced running backs return, led by junior Dale Morris. He played in just two games last season because of a foot injury, but rushed for 310 yards in nine games as a freshman.
"Dale Morris needs to stay healthy," said Wulff. "We don't know how much he'll play this spring and his foot is still recovering. It's still not 100 percent and it's been a long process. But he's shown signs of improvement. Dale has done as much as he can physically in the off-season to get himself prepared."
Senior Toke Kefu is the team's top returning rusher, finishing with 281 yards and three touchdowns in eight games. He was originally going to redshirt, but Morris' foot injury caused Kefu and true freshman Jesse Hoffman to see considerably more action than expected. Hoffman finished with 234 yards in 10 games. A.J. Jimerson added six yards in four games played.
"Jesse has gotten bigger and stronger, and we need him to really step up and grow up from his first year," said Wulff. "That also needs to happen with A.J. Jimerson and Toke Kefu. They have the ability to carry the ball and provide some production for us. How much is really dependent on how they play and perform in practices leading up to our first game."
The fullback slot will be shared by junior Alexis Alexander and freshman redshirt J.C. Sherritt. Although mostly used as a blocker, Alexander rushed for 58 yards and caught four passes for 33 more yards.
"They both can help us at that position, and we'll see how it all unfolds as we move along," said Wulff.
A pair of tight ends return, including senior Tom McAndrews and sophomore Nathan Overbay. McAndrews, a 4.0 student at EWU, caught six passes last year and Overbay had two. Freshman redshirt Matt Martin will also compete for time.
"We know what we're getting with Tom, and we need him to always be a player that is going to compete and be productive at a high, high level," said Wulff. "He gives us a lot of intangibles and has the capability of making plays."
"Nathan Overbay is a talented player who still has not done it on the football field consistently," added Wulff. "He still has some work to do. We expect some good things from Matt Martin. He's a very hard worker and is very mature, and we need him to be a productive player for us."
Eastern's returning receiving corp includes a senior and five sophomores who are learning their trade via trial by fire. Three of the sophomores -- Tony Davis, Brynsen Brown and Aaron Boyce combined for 118 catches for 1,539 yards and eight touchdowns as freshmen. Jeffrey Solomon added seven catches as a true freshman, Nicholas Ramos had six and Shane Eller had five as a junior.
"We have to get a lot more production out of all of those players," said Wulff. "One of the things they have to do is become better blockers. We are not physical enough out there, and as a unit that has to drastically change. If we are going to be a better running football team, which we need to be, they are every bit as important as our offensive line. They have to be better run blockers."
"They also have to become more consistent so they and the quarterback can really have a great feel for each other," he continued. "They have to be extremely precise and consistent with their routes and make sure they are on the same page with the quarterback. There is a ton of room for growth and improvement out of all of them."
Washington State transfer Fritz Brayton and junior college transfer Ryan Burks will compete for the punting job. Redshirt freshman Matt Pierce and wide receiver Shane Eller will compete for the kicking job. Also expected to challenge at punter and kicker in the fall will be junior college transfer Juan Bongarra, formerly from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"We have some questions there," said Wulff. "Hopefully, Fritz can have a good spring and play well under heat. Along with Burks, we want to see how they can produce. In terms of kicking the football, Matt will get the opportunity to prove himself. Shane Eller is another person who has the ability to possibly help us in the kicking game."
Eastern has lots of options for kickoff and punt returns, including Davis, Hoffman and Solomon. Davis averaged 10.1 yards per punt return with a 60-yard touchdown, and also averaged 18.5 yards on kickoff returns. Hoffman averaged 20.5 yards per kickoff return and Solomon averaged 19.5 on kickoffs and 5.6 on punts. Macomber added kickoff returns of 37 and 23 yards.