UPDATED: EWU Football Season Outlook - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

UPDATED: EWU Football Season Outlook

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Eastern Washington will look to extend on its semi-final run from last season. Eastern Washington will look to extend on its semi-final run from last season.

by EWU Athletics

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.

Don't forget to tune in to SWX on Aug. 23 at 11:00 a.m. PT for live pregame coverage of EWU's season opener vs. Sam Houston State, featuring a special behind-the-scenes look of this season's Eagle Football team! Watch a special preview featuring Eastern QB Vernon Adams in the video player above.

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.

OFFENSE

Potent and prolific best describes Eastern's offensive attack under head coach Beau Baldwin, but All-America quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. has taken it to a new level.

His dissection of Oregon State began a record-breaking season that saw him establish 16 new school records, six Big Sky marks and six NCAA Football Championship Subdivision records. Being honored as the Big Sky Conference MVP and FCS Performer of the Year by College Football Performance Awards were the crowning glories of a season that saw him finish as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award given by The Sports Network to the top player in FCS.

No other returning quarterback has thrown a pass in a collegiate game, with sophomore squad member Jordan West and redshirt freshman Conner Richardson joining incoming freshman Reilly Hennessey as backups for Adams.

The supporting cast for Adams will include five returning starters, but also replacements for five starters EWU lost that all received All-Big Sky honors in 2013. They include three linemen, a tight end and a wide receiver.

At wide receiver, Cooper Kupp is back for his sophomore season after emerging as a FCS All-American in his first collegiate season and winning the Jerry Rice Award presented by The Sports Network to the top freshman in FCS. He established four school records, one Big Sky mark and six FCS records after catching 93 passes for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns.

One of the FCS records Kupp set was for combined receiving yards by two players, with Ashton Clark finishing with 83 catches for 1,233 yards and 10 more scores. But Clark graduated after earning second team All-Big Sky honors, and his production will need to be replaced.

Besides Kupp, Eastern's other returning starter is senior Cory Mitchell, who caught 47 passes for 699 yards and three scores. Junior Shaq Hill also saw action as a starter and had 38 catches for 790 yards and nine scores. Both Mitchell and Hill earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2013.

Sophomore Kendrick Bourne could be EWU's breakout receiver in 2014. As a true freshman, he caught seven passes for 117 yards and a pair of scores. Also back is senior Blair Bomber, who had five catches for 79 yards and a TD. Nic Sblendorio, the team's 2013 Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, redshirted last season and could play a big role this year.

Eastern lost third team All-Big Sky tight end Zack Gehring, but does return a trio of players who have seen action at that position. They include junior Jake Withnell, sophomore Zach Wimberly and junior Terry Jackson II. Withnell had three catches a year ago and Wimberly had a pair.

Running back is full of depth and experience, including third team All-Big Sky selection Quincy Forte. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry in finishing with 1,208 yards and 11 touchdowns, including performances of 202 and 190 yards in the FCS Playoffs.

Also back is senior Mario Brown, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry and finished with 482 yards and four scores. Freshman Jabari Wilson saw action as a starter early in the year, and finished with 170 yards and a 5.5 average per carry, and freshman Jalen Moore closed the year with 192 yards.

Those players return with a collective eight letters won between them – Forte (3), Brown (3), Wilson (1) and Moore (1). Together they have 3,396 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, plus another 97 receptions for 918 yards and 10 TDs.

Also on the roster at running back is senior Cody Hecker.

The position that suffered most from graduation losses was the offensive line. All-American and first team All-Big Sky center Ashton Miller, second team All-Big Sky guard Steven Forgette and honorable mention All-BSC guard Brandon Murphy combined for 132 games of experience and 114 starts between them.

Eastern should be extremely solid at tackle, featuring second team All-Big Sky performer Clay DeBord returning for his junior season. Also back as a junior is honorable mention All-BSC pick Cassidy Curtis. Senior Jake Rodgers, a transfer last season from Washington State, is back after sandwiching a knee injury between two stints as a starter at the beginning of the year and the end of the season. In addition, junior T.J. Boatright has seen significant playing time the last two seasons, and has made two career starts at tackle. And Washington State transfer Matt Meyer will also compete for time.

Because of his versatility, Rogers enters the season as a starter at right guard. Aaron Neary, who split time in 2013 with Murphy, is listed as the other starter. Centers Jase Butorac (senior) and Jay Deines (junior) have also lettered previously, with Butorac entering the season as the starter.

Returning letterwinner Thomas Gomez has also played previously at guard, and non-lettering squad member Jerrod Jones and 2013 redshirt Joe Miles also factor into the depth along the offensive line.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

Wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Nic Sblendorio and Blair Bomber are listed as the team's punt returners on the preseason depth chart.

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 may handle kickoffs.

DEFENSE

With or without Ronnie Hamlin, the Eastern Washington University linebacker corp was going to be experienced and talented heading into the 2014 football season.

But when his appeal for a sixth year was granted by the NCAA, the Eagle defense returns a heralded All-American and Buck Buchanan Award candidate to a squad that has room for improvement.

A year ago, Eastern was 104th among 122 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Schools in total defense (457.7), 74th in rushing (180.7), 115th in passing (277.1) and 73rd in scoring (28.3). The Eagles know those numbers will have to improve for EWU to compete for the national title they hope to chase in 2014.

Hamlin, who received a year of eligibility to replace two others wiped out because of knee injuries, was 12th in the voting last season for the Buchanan Award presented to the top defensive player in FCS. He earned second team All-America and second team All-Big Sky accolades after finishing with 140 tackles to rank fourth in school history.

One of three returning starters at linebacker for EWU, Hamlin also had a pair of sacks and two interceptions – one he returned for a game-turning touchdown – in 2013. He enters the 2014 season with 361 tackles, just 71 from the record of 432 set by 2010 Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt (2007-10).

Cody McCarthy was also impressive last season, with 115 tackles to rank as the 13th-most in EWU history. He also had three sacks, and enters his senior season with 203 tackles, good for 35th all-time. The third returning starter is Miquiyah Zamora, who had 54 tackles, a sack and an interception as a redshirt freshman.

Other experienced linebackers returning include senior Jordan Talley, who had 45 tackles in his first season as a linebacker after playing previously as a running back.

Sophomores Albert Havili and Cedric Gonzalez are back after finishing with 61 and eight tackles, respectively, as freshmen. Havili set the school record for tackles by a true freshman, and returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown in the FCS Playoffs versus Jacksonville State.

In addition, 2013 redshirts Jake Gall and John Kreifels should burst onto the scene after sharing EWU's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honor. They should play major roles as backups and on special teams.

Defensive line, which usually rotates 10 players every game, is similarly loaded with talent and depth. However, three starters who all earned All-Big Sky honors were lost, and senior end Evan Day will get a late start to the season because of a knee injury suffered in the spring.

Senior Dylan Zylstra, a two-time honorable mention all-league selection, is the most experienced interior lineman back. He finished the 2013 season with 42 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and three quarterback hurries. Matthew Sommer, who had 21 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks as a true freshman in 2013, returns with significant experience. Also, Jordan Pulu redshirted last year but had four tackles as a true freshman in 2012.

Besides Day, other ends returning include senior Zackary Johnson and sophomore Samson Ebukam. Day earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades a year ago, and had 49 tackles with six sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries in 2013. He enters 2014 with 14 career sacks.

Johnson had 34 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks as a junior. Ebukam, who earned Freshman All-America accolades as a true freshman in 2013, could be a breakout performer on the defensive line after finishing with 28 tackles, three sacks and an interception as a true freshman.

Other past letterwinners returning on the defensive line include seniors John Goldwire and Ashton Boothroyd, although a rare muscle disease kept Goldwire from playing in 2013. Andre Lino and William Lopez redshirted as freshmen last season.

Eastern lost three starters in the secondary, most notably its two starting cornerbacks in T.J. Lee III and Ronald Baines. Lee was a three-time All-Big Sky first team selection and two-time All-American, and Baines earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a senior. Lee, Baines and graduated starting safety Allen Brown, who also received All-BSC honorable mention, combined for 152 games played, 101 career starts, 644 tackles, 13 interceptions and 54 passes broken up in their careers.

Eastern does return a trio of experienced safeties in senior Tevin McDonald, junior Todd Raynes and junior Jordan Tonani. McDonald, who transferred to EWU from UCLA, had 43 tackles and an interception in nine games to earn third team All-Big Sky accolades in his debut as an Eagle.

But a leg injury cut McDonald's season short, enabling Raynes to take over as a starter. He finished the season with 52 tackles and four passes broken up, and was a force on special teams. Tonani, who missed the 2013 season because of a pair of hip surgeries, was a Freshman All-America selection in 2012 when he had 68 tackles, three interceptions and five passes broken up, including a pivotal interception return for a touchdown at Montana State.

Also, senior Isaiah Jenkins, junior Miles Weatheroy and sophomore Zach Bruce return with experience as safeties, as well as action on special teams.

Two letterwinners are back at cornerback -- Frank Cange and D'londo Tucker. Tucker played as a true freshman in 2013 and was listed as a starter at cornerback entering 2014, but an off-season knee injury will force him to redshirt this year.

Cange and 2013 redshirt freshmen Jake Hoffman are currently listed as starters after their performances in the spring, but newcomers and incoming freshmen may also be in the mix. Victor Gamboa was also a 2013 redshirt and practiced with the team for the last year, but 2013 redshirt Keonte White did not because of NCAA regulations. The Eagles also received a boost in the summer when Rashad Wadood transferred to EWU from Arizona State.

"It's very similar to last year when the three wide receivers left," said Baldwin of the holes in the secondary. "It's exciting to see that next group come in and battle, and probably surprise a lot of people.

"We can say the same at the corner position – we lost three seniors who played a lot of football for us, so it will be exciting to see those young players coming in and competing," he continued. "Every position is important, but we all know the island cornerbacks are on. It takes a lot of physical ability and mental toughness to play that position, and play it at a high level. I'm excited to see those battles."

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