In the FCS Huddle: Risk, reward a staple at Eastern Washington

Fatherhood has slowed the days when Beau Baldwin was a roller coaster enthusiast or would jump off a bridge or a cliff into water or would find some other kind of rush.

Still, there remains plenty of risk taking in the Eastern Washington University football coach.

His team's schedules seem to be getting tougher by the year.

"I don't mind taking risks," says the sixth-year coach, whose first two games at EWU in 2008 were against Texas Tech and Colorado.

"I don't think I would have as much success if I didn't have a little bit of that mentality through the last so many years of my career."

This year's 12-game regular-season schedule - the first in EWU history - has Hannibal Lector's fingerprints all over it. Included in the first four games are visits to two FBS opponents, Oregon State and Toledo, as well as a Sam Houston State program that has reached the FCS championship game each of the last two seasons, including a win at EWU in the national semifinals last season.

Highlighting the Eagles' Big Sky Conference schedule are more difficult road games against Montana and Cal Poly, and a home matchup against Montana State.

It's possible EWU could dig an early season hole and not get out of it, as the Eagles did in an 0-4 start two years ago following their 2010 FCS national championship season, which was 2-2 at one point because of yet another tough opening stretch of games.

"To me, I think the tougher you make your schedule, a lot of times that does prepare you for the (playoff) situations," Baldwin said. "I think if you just set your schedule up so you can have a great regular season, I don't think it necessarily prepares you like you truly need to be or want to be to truly make a run in the playoffs. Plus, those are defining-type football games you can go after. Whether it be for us the last couple years with the University of Washington and playing WSU (Washington State) and Idaho. And then this year, obviously, Oregon State, Toledo and also Sam Houston, those are the type of football games that you say, man, you're making the schedule that much tougher, but those are also defining-type games, those are moment-type games."

The Eagles, who were part of a three-team share of the conference title and finished 11-3 with the No. 4 national ranking last season, open spring practice on Thursday with the goal of readying a team that lost a lot at wide receiver, linebacker and defensive end. Besides losing seniors, record-breaking wide receiver Brandon Kaufman and quarterback Kyle Padron, a co-starter last year, departed as juniors to the NFL Draft.

There are 48 letter-winners returning, and 33 of the players have combined to make 301 career starts, which certainly gives the Eagles the expectation they can overcome the losses and their difficult schedule.

"We look at (the spring) as the first 15 practices of 44 before we play our first game," Baldwin said. "The main thing we want to do is just hit those fundamentals early, making sure we are finding out how good certain football guys are, keeping it as simple as we can, evaluating them playing football and fundamentals, not whether or not they can pick up a whole bunch of stuff. It's a pretty generic style, our springs have always been that way. But it's allowed us I think to play fast and to really evaluate how guys play football."

The returning lineup features dual-threat quarterback Vernon Adams, who was one of the better freshman in the FCS last season; a solid running back corp to work behind Steven Forgette and a veteran offensive line; defensive tackle Andru Pulu, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, cornerback T.J. Lee III and safety Allen Brown on defense; and standout punter Jake Miller.

The losses at wide receiver are the most glaring. Kaufman set the FCS single- season record last season with 1,850 receiving yards and joined fellow starters Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd in a trio that combined on a staggering 601 receptions for 8,713 yards and 83 touchdowns over their careers.

This year's group won't have the size of its predecessors, but might sneak up on opponents with its raw talent. Senior Ashton Clark (83 career receptions) is the most seasoned receiver from a unit that includes senior Daniel Johnson, junior Cory Mitchell, sophomore Shaquille Hill, and redshirt freshmen Cooper Kupp and Keylin Huddleston.

"So other guys at other positions need to pick up what they're doing," Baldwin said. "And we do, we have veterans coming back on the offensive line, we have veterans at tight end, we have veterans at running back and we have a young quarterback, but a young quarterback who has not just game but big-game experience. So there's good pieces around them. Same thing on defense. Linebacker is where we lost the most bodies, but we have enough veterans coming back at D-line and secondary to help that transition period for the younger players that are playing new positions."

The difficulty of Eastern Washington schedules hasn't stopped the Eagles from being big winners under Baldwin. Each of his first five teams has finished with winning records both overall and in the Big Sky.

They expect to do that again during this year's regular season, and then parlay it into postseason success.

What a rush that would be.