Experience waiting in the wings in absence of Edwards, Herd and Kaufman (Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of previews for EWU’s 2013 football team.)
The task may really look daunting from the outside, but inside the locker room there’s not much panic on Eastern Washington University’s football team when it comes to replacing the heart of the team’s offense.
“Our players work on it, even without the coaches even doing anything with them,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “They are continuously trying to be that next great playmaker.”
In the 2013 season, the wide receiver position will be the focal point after EWU lost three receivers – Nicholas Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman – all who earned All-America honors and collectively scored 83 touchdowns in their careers. All three eventually signed free agent contracts with NFL teams.
“You can call them inexperienced, but we have some players who are in the program already,” Baldwin said. The top returning receiver is senior Ashton Clark, who has 83 catches for 1,091 yards and nine touchdowns in his career.
Eastern also returns a trio of letterwinners – senior Daniel Johnson, junior Cory Mitchell and sophomore Shaquille Hill – as well as converted tight end Ryan Seto. Talented redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp is slated as a starter, and Washington State University transfer Blair Bomber adds depth.
Mitchell is the brother of EWU’s 2011 Walter Payton Award Winner Bo Levi Mitchell.
“We lost three incredible receivers, but we return a lot of players who have played a lot of football,” Baldwin said. “When you have that, plus a player like (quarterback) Vernon (Adams), it will help the transition at the receiver position.”
Adams started nine games at quarterback for the Eagles and was the Football Championship Subdivision Freshman of the Year on the College Sporting News “Fabulous 50” All-America team.
Adams completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 1,961 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions, fourth in FCS in passing efficiency (160.80). He finished with 191 rushing yards.
The Pasadena, Calif. native had 390 yards and a school-record six touchdown passes in Eastern’s season-ending 45-42 loss to Sam Houston State. Adams played only the second half as Eastern rallied from a 35-0 halftime deficit to nearly complete the mother of all comebacks.
“The growth I think we are going to see out of Vernon – and it’s a goal of his – is consistency,” Baldwin said.
Eastern’s other two returning quarterbacks are senior Anthony Vitto and redshirt freshman Jordan West.
Helping provide more receiving threats and protection for Adams is an experienced group of tight ends. Senior Zack Gehring is joined by a pair of returning letterwinners, senior Cody Humphrey and redshirt freshman Jake Withnell.
All of Eastern’s running backs return in 2013, and the Eagles hope to continue the improvement made in its running game in 2012 when the Eagles ranked 90th in FCS with an average of 123.1 yards per game, up from 112th out of 120 FCS teams in 2011.
Eastern’s returning running backs – senior Demitrius Bronson, junior Mario Brown and junior Quincy Forte – have have combined for 1,842 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. Former back Jordan Talley was converted to linebacker in the spring.
Juniors Cody Hecker and Nick Washburn are two other letterwinners returning, and, along with redshirt freshmen Jabari Wilson and Jalen Moore, add depth to that experienced corps of backs.
Both Talley and Brown redshirted the 2012 season, paving the way for Forte and Bronson to get the majority of snaps. Forte finished with 597 yards and two touchdowns. Bronson was the team’s short-yardage back and had 472 yards and 11 TDs.
Experience and staying healthy along the offensive line were big reasons why Eastern’s running game improved in 2012.
In 2013, EWU returns four of its five starting offensive linemen, including a pair of players who were injured early and lost for the 2011 season. Seniors Ashton Miller (ruptured Achilles) and guard Steven Forgette (broken fibula) returned to start all 14 games in 2012, as did senior Brandon Murphy. The fourth returning starter is sophomore Clay DeBord, who started 13 games as a redshirt freshman.