The 2014 college football season begins in Cheney, Washington when Eastern Washington hosts Sam Houston State on Saturday in front of a worldwide ESPN audience. Roos Field, aka The Inferno, is sold out and ready for head coach Beau Baldwin's Eagles -- ranked No. 1 by The Sports Network -- to take on a Bearkats' squad they have never beaten.
EWU returns one of the best quarterbacks in the nation with Vernon Adams under center. Adams is 20-4 as a starter -- one more victory than Bo Levi Mitchell -- and threw for 4,994 yards with 55 touchdowns in 2014.
NCAA.com sat down with Baldwin twice in the week leading up to Saturday's clash against a coach he's quite familiar with. Saturday marks K.C. Keeler's debut as SHSU's head coach after a successful run at Delaware, which included a national title game loss to Eastern Washington at the 2010 FCS Championship.
1 – What is the most dangerous thing about Sam Houston State?
I think more than anything – regardless of a coaching change – it’s the speed and the aggressiveness that they play with. I think we’ll find after playing a long season and hopefully an even longer schedule, we’ll find that their team speed and athleticism will be right there at the top. I felt that way the last two times we played them.
2 – Does it help to have played Sam Houston State the last two years?
It can. Facing them two years in a row helps us, but it doesn’t help us as much as most Game 1’s if you’ve played someone. The reason I say that – they lost a good amount of guys and they brought in a lot of transfers. It’s not even like backups are now starters and maybe we saw them. The transfers are now coming in as starters and we know nothing about them. And on top of that, a new head coach with a new offensive coordinator. From everything we hear, it’s going to be a lot different offensively. The defensive coordinator is back but now he’s listed as co-defensive coordinator with someone who coach Keeler brought from Delaware. Our big message has been ‘play to our standards.’ Be ready to make early adjustments and communicate. They are going to show us things that we haven’t seen out here in practice. It’s just the nature of the beast.
3 – Taking a look at the offense, is there another step for quarterback Vernon Adams to take?
I think the next step for him may not be more total yards – who knows if he can throw for that many yards again. But he can still have a better season and be a better player. He can still see things – checking progressions and changing plays – that maybe as a younger quarterback he would’ve stayed with it. For him, I think he’ll grow and mature as a leader. Those are keys for him, and I’ve already seen the game slow down for him. I noticed in the spring that the game is even slower for him, with the more experience that he gets. I’m excited to see that growth rather than to see how many yards and touchdowns he throws for. Those things aren’t a worry as long as what he’s doing is equal to wins.
4 – Shifting to the defense, how does the defense look with top two tacklers returning in 2014?
They look really good. That’s a group that has a defensive line that has a lot of depth and can rotate everywhere on that line – they can play nine or 10 guys. A returning captain in [linebacker] Ronnie Hamlin – he’s been a leader for a couple years now and will continue to do that. We have a lot of depth and a lot of experience in that front seven. It’s been fun to watch the battle between the four or five guys at cornerback, too.
5 – What is one thing we need to watch for on Saturday against Sam Houston State?
More than anything, hopefully you’ll see a team that flies around and that plays the game with passion. When things don’t go right, hopefully you won’t see a group that panics or points fingers and that they keep coming back swinging. It’s the mindset that we’ve had for a while around here and this group is going to carry that as well. Hopefully they’ll have great body language and play this game the way it’s meant to be played – to have fun and let ‘er rip. Our guys do a lot of work and I don’t have to get them loose – I’ll put it that way. They’ll be loose and having fun with it, and that’s the way I like it.