June 20, 2008
There is more than meets the eye.
Keeping its "eye on the prize" is important, but not the most important element of preparation for the Eastern Washington University football program as the highly-anticipated 2008 season approaches.
With a large group of players returning, Eastern is hoping to continue the momentum from the 2007 season when the Eagles returned to the top of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision scene with a 9-4 finish after a dismal 3-8 record the year before. Eastern advanced to the FCS Playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons and closed the year ranked eighth in the final Sports Network poll of the year.
An impressive 44-15 first-round victory over previously unbeaten McNeese State in the FCS Playoffs cost EWU its head coach as Paul Wulff departed to become head coach at Washington State University. But the Eagles have plenty to look forward to – and work ahead of them – under new head coach Beau Baldwin.
"I think you want to keep your eye on the prize and the ultimate prize is to win a national championship. But it’s still a process," said Baldwin, who spent the 2003-2006 seasons as EWU’s offensive coordinator before becoming head coach at Central Washington for one season.
"I’m very confident that our players are going to come back hungry," he continued. "They aren’t settling for what they already accomplished – we won’t let that happen. We’re looking to come back and work even harder. We want to do even more and get over another hump."
The Eagles return 44 letter winners from last year’s team, including 22 on offense and 19 on defense as well as three specialists. A total of 15 starters are back, featuring six on offense, seven on defense and the team’s kicker and punter.
"It definitely excites me – I don’t want to mess them up," said Baldwin when he was named head coach on Jan. 4, 2008. "They are great athletes and a great team. They are players with great character and I know that. I saw that in ’06 – it was a struggle but it’s not like you couldn’t see the character that was there. I saw the makeup of that group of players."
In all, Baldwin has 27 players returning with starting experience and a total of 273 starts between them. That list is led by senior All-America defensive end Greg Peach (29 career starts), with the offensive leaders including junior quarterback Matt Nichols and junior All-America wide receiver Aaron Boyce (23 career starts each). Nichols was last year’s Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP after throwing for a school-record 34 touchdowns in 2007, a year after throwing for a school-record 17 interceptions in 2006.
"I didn’t get to be a part of their off-season, but there is no doubt that those games they won last year were won between January and August," Baldwin said of last year’s turnaround.
"That’s the same approach I’ve always believed in. It doesn’t matter if you are successful or not, you are going to get better or worse each day. I know how hard those players worked. The fun part is the season, but you win or lose those games in the off-season."
Besides Nichols, Boyce and Peach – all first team All-Big Sky Conference selections – seven other Eagles return after earning all-league honors in 2007. Senior defensive tackle Lance Witherspoon earned second team All-Big Sky honors and also earned All-America accolades as an honorable mention selection.
Returning All-Big Sky honorable mention selections included junior wide receiver Brynsen Brown, senior running back Dale Morris, senior defensive tackle Shawn Powell, senior defensive end Jason Belford, junior linebacker Makai Borden and senior special teams standout Adam Macomber.
Among the 17 letter winners lost were 12 seniors who combined for 246 starts in their careers. Six of those 12 players were four-year letter winners, including offensive linemen Matt Alfred, Rocky Hanni, Zach Wasielewski and Chris Carlsen. That quartet combined for 146 starts in their careers, with individual totals of 46, 45, 35 and 20, respectively.
The other two four-year letter winners were cornerback Ira Jarmon (24 career starts) and tight end Tom McAndrews (11 career starts). The senior class also included the team’s top four tacklers from 2007 – linebacker Jared Kuhl (96), safety Bryan Jarrett (91), Jarmon (77) and rover Anthony Dotson (76).
Eastern’s offense has limited starting experience along the offensive line, but the Eagles are stocked at the skill positions.
Nichols leads the way after finishing the 2007 season ranked in the top eight in three statistical categories in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. He was eighth in FCS in passing efficiency rating (156.5), fifth in passing offense (288.0) and fifth in total offense (318.2) to lead the Big Sky in all three categories.
Nichols completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,744 yards, a school-record 34 touchdowns and had just nine interceptions in 2007 after having 17 interceptions (equaling a school record) and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Nichols also broke the school’s single season rushing record for quarterbacks as he finished with 392 yards.
Nichols’ passing yardage total is the second-most in school history – easily the most-ever for an EWU sophomore (Erik Meyer had 2,301 as a sophomore in 2003). He ranked just behind the quarterback he replaced – Meyer, the 2005 winner of the Walter Payton Award – who set school records in 2005 with 4,003 passing yards, a 333.6 average per game and 4,224 total yards.
Nichols will be backed up by senior Alex Smart, who completed 7-of-13 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in 2007.
Boyce is among the three returning starters at wide receiver, with three other returning letter winners back. He had 85 catches for 1,308 yards and 10 touchdown receptions to rank 14th in FCS in receptions (6.5 per game) and sixth in receiving yards (100.6).
His catch total ranked second all-time at EWU and his yardage total was fourth. Boyce had a record-breaking performance at Montana on Oct. 6 and was selected by The Sports Network as the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Offensive Player of the Week. Boyce, a 2005 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., had the fourth-most catches in Big Sky history with a school-record 17.
Brown also returns after catching 52 passes for 755 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. Tony Davis, despite missing four games because of a shoulder injury suffered on a touchdown catch, finished with 35 catches for 498 yards and four scores. He also rushed 16 times for 88 yards.
At the halfway point of their careers, the trio of Boyce, Brown and Davis has already combined for 290 catches for 4,100 yards and 26 touchdowns in 68 games worth of experience (55 starts).
Other returning letter winners at wide receiver include Ashton Gant, Nicholas Ramos and Jeffrey Solomon. Gant had one catch last season as a redshirt freshman and Ramos had three and a touchdown as a sophomore. Solomon redshirted in 2007, but as a true freshman in 2007 he had seven catches for 87 yards and a score.
Morris is one of four returning seniors at running back, and all four have starting experience. Morris, whose brother Maurice plays for the Seattle Seahawks, rushed for 930 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2007. He had 512 yards and eight touchdowns in Eastern’s last six games, and also finished the season with 11 catches for 77 yards and a score.
Also back is Alexis Alexander, who saw action at tailback a year ago after starting as EWU’s fullback. He had 267 rushing yards and five touchdowns, and also caught five passes for 61 more yards and a score. He has started a total of nine games in his career.
A.J. Jimerson added 260 yards and a touchdown while getting two starts at fullback and also seeing action at tailback. He received much of his playing time after Toke Kefu suffered a season-ending hand injury and redshirted. Kefu had 55 yards rushing before his injury and enters 2008 with 835 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in his career.
At tight end, returning letter winners include Nathan Overbay and Matt Martin. Overbay caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore, while Martin added seven catches for 43 yards and two scores as a redshirt freshman.
Along the offensive line, senior Charlie Wulff – the nephew of former EWU head coach Paul Wulff – is the lone returning starter. He has 20 career starts, but Eastern does return two other players with starting experience.
Junior Chris Thomas started seven games at tackle and sophomore Brice Leahy started one. Other returning letter winners on the offensive line include Ryan Forney, John Rice, Sean Rock and Bryan Smith.
Four senior starters return to Eastern’s defensive line, which helped the Eagles rank 38th in FCS in rushing defense (144.1). All four earned All-Big Sky Conference honors.
Peach finished with 63 tackles, including 11 sacks to rank as the fifth-best performance in school history and 11th in FCS (0.85 per game). He will enter his senior season with 17 1/2 sacks that rank ninth in school history.
Witherspoon ended the 2007 season with 44 tackles, a sack and 12 total tackles for loss. Belford had 53 tackles with seven sacks and a total of 13 1/2 tackles for loss. Powell added 44 tackles, one sack and 4 1/2 tackles for loss.
Also back on the defensive line are junior Josh Jacobson, sophomore Tyler Jolley, junior Jacob Kragt and sophomore Lorenzo Lomack. All but Lomack have started before, and as a group, the defensive line has 79 total starts and 18 total letters worth of experience.
Kragt finished the 2007 season with 24 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks, Jacobson had 15 tackles and a sack, Jolley had 11 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks, and Lomack had seven tackles.
At linebacker, Borden missed Eastern’s quarterfinal FCS playoff game with a stress fracture in his foot, but finished the season with 52 tackles. He also had 5 1/2 total tackles for loss, two interceptions, three passes broken up, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Besides the playoff game, Borden missed two other starts because of a toe injury – both losses – as Eastern was 9-1 in the 10 games he started.
Three other letter winners return at linebacker, including Marcus Walker and J.C. Sherritt. Walker started three games and finished with 47 tackles, a sack and a pass broken up. Sherritt added 32 tackles with an interception and pass broken up.
Eastern has nine returning letter winners in the secondary, including Jesse Hoffman, who moved to the secondary after seeing significant action as a running back in 2006 as a true freshman.
But Hoffman was injured in 2007 and Kevin Hatch started all 13 Eastern games at free safety. He finished with 75 tackles, four interceptions, six passes broken up and three fumble recoveries.
Ryan Kelley, a junior college transfer in 2007, ended up starting the last five games of the season at cornerback. He finished with 36 tackles, a pair of interceptions and five passes broken up. Junior Lonnie Hosley, the player Kelley replaced in the lineup, started eight games and finished with 26 tackles, three interceptions and six passes broken up.
Other returning letter winners in the secondary include Dante Calcote, Will Edge, Brett Igbinoba, Kyle Wilkins and Macomber. Edge led that group with 18 tackles in 2007, followed by Macomber with 17, Wilkins with eight, Igbinoba with nine and Calcote with four.
Senior punter Fritz Brayton is back after ranking 47th in FCS (39.8 per punt). Senior kicker Felipe Macias also returns after ranking 64th nationally in scoring (6.9) and 58th in field goals (0.85, total of 11). Helping both players considerably is returning senior long-snapper Mark Lathim.
Eastern’s return units also appear to be strong with the return of Ramos (27.8 per kickoff return in 2007), Brown (16.9 per kickoff return in 2007), Davis (21.3 per kickoff return and 9.0 per punt return in his career) and Solomon (19.5 per kickoff return and 5.6 per punt return in 2006).