Eastern Oregon University head coach Jim Fenwick is back exactly where he wants to be.
That is, pacing the EOU sidelines instead of in a hospital, where he spent much of the 2004 season receiving treatments for leukemia.
"I'm very happy, very fortunate," Fenwick said. "I've got a long ways to go physically and along the way may use that as some motivation for myself, but I don't want my health to be a focus this season. I want it to be on football."
Fenwick doesn't have any medical restrictions this year, other than taking medication.
In Fenwick's absence, EOU, under the leadership of defensive coordinator Travis Baker, posted a record of 6-4. It was the Mountaineers' first winning season since 1998.
In his fourth season as the Mountaineers' head coach, Fenwick has questions to answer on both sides of the ball and a sense of momentum as EOU will try to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1979-1980.
The 2004 season was a rollercoaster ride for the Mountaineers. They started off 2-0 and worked their way into the national rankings before dropping three straight games to Montana Tech, Whitworth and Central Washington.
EOU then reeled off four straight wins, starting with blowouts over Frontier Conference foes Montana State-Northern and Rocky Mountain College before an upset of No. 6- ranked Azusa Pacific at Community Stadium and a 27-26 victory over rival Southern Oregon University in Ashland.
A 17-14 loss at Montana-Western in the season finale ended Eastern's hopes for an NAIA playoff bid, but couldn't diminish the Mountaineers' accomplishments.
This season will be EOU's last before becoming a full-time member of the Frontier Conference in 2006.
EOU returns six starters on offense and just one full-time starter on defense.
"You try to develop younger players and hope they stick around and turn into good college players," Fenwick said. "We think we've got a tougher schedule than last year, but we feel like we've grown as a program."
Senior Scott Jensen returns for his third year as starting quarterback and second as a full-time starter.
Jensen's numbers in 2004 1,325 yards passing and six touchdowns in 10 games were hardly up from 2003 when he split time with Aaron Hazel and threw for 1,115 yards and six touchdowns in eight games.
According to Fenwick, Jensen has been his own worst critic.
"It's not like I have to be on Scott all the time to tell him if he's doing things wrong," Fenwick said. "He knows, and he knows he has not produced like he should. Scott is a leader and I expect him to step up."
Jensen is looking for the same out of himself, and then some.
"I've always been pretty hard on myself, and I think that comes from being a small, skinny guy trying to play quarterback and people saying There's no way this guy can play'," Jensen said. "I just laugh at talk like that. All I can do is just try to learn the new offense and be a leader on this team."
The EOU offense was hoping to rely heavily on running backs Justin Alsterlund (819 yards, seven TDs) and Sacramento State transfer Tyrone Gross
Gross was poised to have a breakout season after an impressive spring game performance, but it appears he will miss 2005 due to academic eligibility issues.
Wide receiver Devin Smith (24 catches, 346 yards, three TDs) returns after leading the team in receiving in 2004.
Jacoby Fox (17 catches, 163 yards, one TD)
and sophomore James Mayfield (6-foot-4, 180 pounds)
will also have to step up.
The Mountaineers have two returning offensive line starters, Travis Holbrook and James Hatch, and two part-time starters expected to fill starting roles in Jason Brown and Kevin Bohr. Idaho State transfer Eric Price will likely start at tackle.
The Mountaineers return just one starter off a defense that won several games for them in 2004.
Two 2004 starters EOU had initially thought would help in 2005, cornerback Mike Davis (52 tackles, one interception) and free safety Josh Johnson (42 tackles, three interceptions) are academically
"We can't worry about people that aren't here," Fenwick said. "We've got to move on without them."
The Mountaineers lost senior All-American linebacker Nick Hannah, plus their whole defensive line, to graduation.
Senior linebacker Mark Persche, a three-year starter, is the team's leading returning tackler after posting 52 stops in 2004.
Michael Eby, who was injured for most of 2004, will return to help shore up the Mountaineer linebacking corps.
"There is some momentum after last year, but we have to respect everybody that we're going to play," Persche said. "We've got a long ways to go to be as good as last year's team. We're going to need some people to step up."
EOU had a great kicking game in 2004, as junior Cody Bloom went 9-for-9 on field goal attempts and 26-for-29 on point after attempts.
Junior Cam Ketner and Alsterlund, the team leaders in punt and kickoff returns in 2004, will look to bolster a unit that didn't score any touchdowns in 2004.
To win, EOU must find a way to stop opponents with a group that has little-to-no experience in collegiate games.
It must also hope for a big year from Jensen, who showed signs of promise in 2003, and have either Gross or Alsterlund step into a full-time role at running back.
The Mountaineers' schedule doesn't get any tougher than the opener Sept. 2 when they take on three-time defending national champion Carroll College and NAIA national offensive player of the year Tyler Ermmert at Community Stadium.
From then on, things get a bit easier, with road games against Rocky Mountain and Montana Tech two very winnable games before returning home for Whitworth.
The Mountaineers then go back on the road to play perennial Frontier doormat MSU-Northern, return home for a second matchup with Rocky Mountain and then travel to Southern California to play Azusa Pacific.
EOU finishes its 2005 schedule at home with SOU and Montana-Western.