Friday, December 07, 2007


Football Wrap

Story from the Spokesman wrapping up the successful year and looking ahead to the next.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Eastern expects electrifying future
Offensive line remains concern

Steve Bergum
Staff writer
December 7, 2007

Paul Wulff could have easily tried to temper expectations for his Eastern Washington University football program by simply pointing to his offensive line and the graduation losses it will suffer come spring.

But Eastern's eighth-year head coach is too honest to do that, insisting, instead, that he sees nothing but brighter days ahead for the Eagles, who finished a surprising 9-4 this fall and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs before losing to Appalachian State 38-35 last Saturday in Boone, N.C.

"Those seniors were, obviously, the heart and soul of our offense this year, particularly in our run down the stretch," Wulff said of Matt Alfred, Rocky Hanni, Chris Carlsen and Zach Wasielewski, who played their final game in an Eastern jersey last weekend. "They were a very intelligent group that was committed to the team and doing everything right all the time.

"There was a phenomenal sense of togetherness with those seniors, and they will be missed. But we feel like we have some very, very talented young players who are capable of stepping into their shoes and helping make us an even better football team."

For next year and beyond, it would seem.

"I was very proud of how our kids grew up this year," Wulff said, referring to the way his Eagles bounced back from last year's disappointing 3-8 finish. "We just developed into a nice, very competitive and hard-playing football team, and I don't see any reason why that's going to change. I feel like this team is on the brink of having an opportunity to win a couple of (Big Sky) conference titles and truly compete for a national championship.

"I think our program is in as good a shape as it has ever, ever been."

It's difficult to argue with Wulff's assessment.

Despite the losses up front, Eastern's offense returns five full-time starters, including record-setting sophomore quarterback Matt Nichols and four of his top five receivers. Nichols, who threw for 3,744 yards and set single-season school records for completions (280) and touchdown passes (34), was named the Big Sky Conference's offensive player of the year. His favorite target, sophomore Aaron Boyce, was also a first-team all-conference pick after hauling in 85 passes for 1,308 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Eagles also return leading rusher Dale Morris, a junior, who ran for 930 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The major concern for next year, however, remains the offensive line. But Wulff is quick to point out that junior Charlie Wulff, his nephew, started the last eight games at center this fall and two of his young linemen, sophomore Chris Thomas and redshirt freshman Brice Leahy, also have starting experience.

Junior Julian Stewart, the projected starter at left tackle coming out of spring practice, is expected to return next fall after missing the 2007 because of academic issues. Chris Powers, a freshman defensive lineman who redshirted this year, is expected to move to the O-line.

Wulff said he is also high on the potential of sophomores Sean Rock and John Rice and freshmen Clint Moquist and Joe Beitinger.

"So the pieces are there for us to be very good in the offensive line for quite a while," Wulff said.

The Eagles should be solid on the defensive front, where they return all four starting down linemen – including first-team all-Big Sky pick Greg Peach, who recorded a team-high 11 sacks as a junior this fall – and linebacker Makai Borden.

The biggest graduation hits will come in the secondary, where seniors Bryan Jarrett, Anthony Dotson and Ira Jarmon will be lost. But Wulff said the school is petitioning for a sixth year of eligibility for senior free safety Gregor Smith, who missed last season and most of 2006 with shoulder problems, and should benefit greatly from the return of sophomore Jesse Hoffman and freshman Ethen Robinson, who also suffered season-ending injuries early this fall.

Junior Ryan Kelley and sophomore Lonnie Hosley both started at least five games at right cornerback, and sophomore Kevin Hatch was a solid performer in place of Smith at free safety, where he was involved in 34 tackles and came up with a team-best four interceptions.

Junior Terry Mixon, a transfer from Washington State who was plagued by a bad hamstring most of the season, is expected to return and play a key role in EWU's secondary.

"Clearly, the off-season will give him a great opportunity to get healthy, get in our off-season weight program and get himself fit," Wulff said of Mixon, who was a junior college all-American at Grossmont (Calif.) Community College before signing with WSU.

The Eagles also return place-kicker Felipe Marcias, punter Fritz Brayton and long snapper Mark Lathim, along with kickoff return specialist Nicholas Ramos.

"Our seniors provided great leadership all season long, no question," Wulff said. "But we had some young kids develop great leadership skills, too.

"I don't see any reason why next year's team won't be projected to be one of the top teams in the conference, and one of the top teams in the country, as well."

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