Aug. 6, 2007
The "burning desire" to improve upon last year's 3-8 finish will be on the minds of the Eastern Washington University football team when it opens preseason practices the week of Aug. 13, with the team's first full-team workout taking place on Wednesday, Aug. 15.
The Eagles will practice three weeks before opening their season at home on Friday, Aug. 31 against Montana-Western at 7:05 p.m. at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern is coming off a 3-8 finish last year that included a 3-5 record in Big Sky Conference play after losing all three of its non-conference games. Eastern head coach Paul Wulff is expecting his team to be championship contender once again after sharing the Big Sky Conference title in both 2004 and 2005 and advancing to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs both seasons.
"I think there is a burning desire to get back to playing well and playing good football," he said. "That includes coaches and players. We have built enough expectations of success in our program that last year was not acceptable. We will prepare ourselves as well as we possibly can to come back this season and play better."
Wulff expects about 70 veteran players and another 20 new players on hand when they begin reporting on Aug. 12. After two days of split practices -- rookies in the morning and veterans in the afternoon -- the team will practice together for the first time on Aug. 15 at 9 a.m.
A scrimmage free and open to the public will take place at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Following its opener, Eastern has a week off and will treat it like a week of preseason camp with a pair of two-a-day practices and another scrimmage on the morning of Sept. 7. Eastern plays its second game at home against UC-Davis on Sept. 15 before playing its first Big Sky game of the season at Idaho State on Sept. 22.
"That's what I like about it," said Wulff of getting a chance to have a full week of videotape evaluation and practices after the team's first game. "Hopefully it turns out the way it should. But it should be really good for us."
Montana-Western, a member of the NAIA, is the first lower division opener for Eastern since 1997. It is also the first time Eastern will open the season at Woodward Field since 1997, when Eastern finished 12-2 and advanced to the "Final Four" of the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
In eight of the nine seasons since 1997, Eastern has opened the season on the road against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe. Just once in those nine seasons -- a 35-17 victory at Connecticut -- has Eastern opened the season with a victory.
"I like it -- it might be one of the better schedules we've had in quite some time," said Wulff. "Playing a game early like that (against a lower division opponent) will be good for us and is something we haven't been accustomed to being able to do here."
"But two weeks after that we play a very tough Championship Subdivision foe in UC-Davis," he added. "They are very talented and well-coached. That is going to be a great challenge for our football team. Hopefully that will prepare us as well as we can ask heading into league play."
Classes at EWU don't begin until Sept. 26. Eastern has been picked to finish fifth in the league by both the media and coaches. Although Montana has won or shared every Big Sky title since 1998, Wulff expects another challenging season in which any team can compete for the league title. Last year Eastern lost three of its league games by a combined total of 14 points.
"That's an indication of how this league has evolved," said Wulff. "There used to be the obvious two or three teams that could line-up, play pretty good and win. This league is not like that now. You have to play pretty darn well each week just to have a chance to win."
Eastern enters practices with much more experience under its belt than last year, but the Eagles are still young. Only four seniors are listed on the team's projected starting lineup on defense and six are on the starting offense.
Four of those seniors are along the offensive line as Eastern returns a pair of past All-Americans (Matt Alfred in 2005 and Rocky Hanni in 2004), as well another All-Big Sky tackle in Zach Wasielewski. The lone non-starting senior on the offensive line, Julian Stewart, is academically ineligible to play in 2007. Hanni will take over Stewart's left tackle spot, and competition will be fierce for the final starting position.
"That was a little bit of a hit, but we do have some experience there and it is an area that needs to be a strength," said Wulff. "They are a group that should play well and get us out of the gate and play well early. There is a lot of pressure on those guys to perform well."
Eastern's offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols and six other sophomores expected to play key roles as offensive skill players. They include wide receivers Tony Davis, Aaron Boyce, Jeffrey Solomon and Brynsen Brown, as well as running back Jesse Hoffman and tight end Nathan Overbay.
"All of those youthful players have good experience," Wulff said. "We are still going to be a youthful football team, but I do believe we should be a good football team. How fast we grow as the season progresses is really going to be the indicator of how well we end up doing at the end of the season."