The EWU Eagles hit the practice field Wednesday to open camp in Cheney. Their motto this year is to reload, not rebuild.
Despite its injury epidemic in 2011, the Eastern Washington University football team didn’t make excuses.
The Eagles just reloaded for 2012.
Expecting to be in the hunt for the Big Sky Conference title and yet another playoff berth in the NCAA Championship Subdivision, Eastern is hoping for big things from an experienced team that features eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense, with a total of 48 returning letter winners. And the last time Eastern had a rash of injuries like they did last season, the Eagles parlayed that experience for younger players into the NCAA Division I title in 2010.
“I’m going to be upset if we don’t contend for a Big Sky title – I’m going to be very upset,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, who is entering his fifth year at the helm. “I know every year is a little bit different, but our goal, our mindset and our vision as a program is to reload. We never want to be in the phase where you say you are rebuilding.”
Eastern reloaded at quarterback by obtaining the services of yet another transfer from Southern Methodist University, 21-game starter Kyle Padron. The last transfer from SMU turned out to be pretty good. Bo Levi Mitchell directed EWU to 19 victories, the national title in 2010 and won the Walter Payton Award as a senior in 2011.
Padron will have a talented group of wide receivers to throw to, led by consensus 2011 All-American Nicholas Edwards. All the former walk-on did was catch a school-record 95 passes for 1,250 yards and 19 touchdowns to lead FCS. He is one of three Eagle receivers who enter the 2012 season having won All-America honors and with a 1,000-yard receiving season to their credit.
Eastern also regained the services of linebacker Zach Johnson, who was injured in 2011 and was granted a sixth year by the NCAA to complete four years of eligibility. Johnson had 19 games wiped out, including the entire 2009 season, because of the same knee injury.
In all, a total of 14 starters – seven on each side of the ball – suffered injuries that kept them out of the lineup in 2011, including seven players lost for the season. Eastern stumbled to a 0-4 start, but the Eagles adjusted well to the injury epidemic and won six of their final seven games to finish with the school’s 14th winning season in the last 16 years.
But Eastern fell a victory shy of its sixth playoff berth since 2004. Although the Eagles came up short, EWU is one of just seven schools among the 120 in FCS to have advanced to the playoffs five times in the last eight seasons.
“Regardless of the injuries, we were upset and frustrated with the fact we came up a few games short of contending for a title and a win short of the playoffs,” said Baldwin. “I expect nothing more than the same expectations going into this year. Believe me, that is no easy task in this conference – the Big Sky is only getting better with the addition of teams. Not only that, but some of the teams have improved dramatically over the past few years.”
Besides Johnson, four other injured players return after being lost for the year early in the 2011 season – All-America wide receiver Brandon Kaufman (knee/hand), guard Ashton Miller (Achilles), guard Steven Forgette (broken fibula) and guard Jase Butorac (knee).
Eastern started 46 different players in the 2011 season – 24 on offense and 22 on defense – with only five players starting all 11 games. A total of 21 players made starting debuts during the season, and most of those return for the 2012 campaign.
“We do have a lot of players who have played a lot of football, and that’s sometimes the silver lining with injuries,” explained Baldwin. “We had younger players play a little bit more and sooner than we thought, but we’re better for it this year. A couple of years ago that showed up at the receiver position when Nick Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman all got the opportunity to play as freshmen. That experience helped a great deal heading into the 2010 season.”
Reloaded, as Baldwin likes to say.
“It’s one thing to say and a tougher thing to do, but that is going to be our mindset every year,” he added of his team’s lofty goals of returning to national prominence. “But there are a lot of pieces in place to at least work toward that becoming a reality.”