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Eastern Oregon University freshman running back A.J. Prom runs through drills last week during practice. (Casey Kellas/The Observer)
EOU football prepares for season after 4-6 campaign in 2012
Sticking together. That’s what sixth-year head coach Tim Camp said will be the key for the Eastern Oregon University football team this season.
“I think the strength of this football team is going to be the unity and the family of it together,” Camp said after practice Sunday. “I don’t think we have one total superstar. We have a bunch of good football players. So, I think the group together is going to be bigger than one or two individuals.”
The Mountaineers are coming off a 4-6 season last year. Eastern Oregon saw its points per game on offense drop from 34 in 2011 to just 19 points last year.
Only one quarterback with game experience for EOU is back this year. Senior Ray Walser returns after completing 47-of-80 passes for 437 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Camp said that redshirt freshman Zach Bartlow will be the starting quarterback for the opener at Portland State Thursday. Junior T.J. Esekielu could also see action if needed.
Dominique Blackman, a transfer from the University of Idaho, is still working on getting eligible.
“I’ve always been a guy that’s been in the top 15 in total offense,” Camp said. “I think you gotta make plays. You gotta get the ball to people who are playmakers in space and let them work. We didn’t do that a lot last year.”
Camp said he wants the Mountaineers to score between 28 and 31 points per game this season. He thinks that total will give the Mountaineers a chance to win each week.
The Mountaineers might also get back to running the ball more.
“Run game (will be key),” senior offensive lineman Emery Jones said. “If you have a good run game it makes everything easier.”
Sean Hurlbut, last season’s leading rusher, was lost to graduation. But the Mountaineers return senior Chris McGinnis-Parker, who ran for 411 yards and two touchdowns last season. Junior Mahonri Bostrom, who got a lot of reps during the spring game, will see increased action this year. Freshman A.J. Prom could also see carries this year.
EOU does boast some playmakers at wide receiver. Sophomore Jace Billingsly had 633 yards receiving last year and eight touchdowns. Senior Kedrick Starr and junior Luis Ortiz are both players who stretch the field for Eastern Oregon.
Justin Hernandez, a transfer from the University of Idaho, is also expected to contribute heavily to the offense.
“We gotta keep the defense off the field,” Camp said.
“We’re still an inside-zone, power, mid-zone, throw the ball vertical (offensive) team. Our offense has never changed. It’s just a matter of people making plays and putting the ball in the right spot.”
Eastern Oregon will also have a lot of youth on the field this season.
“We’ve had some good transfers come in,” Jones said. “We had a lot of spots that we needed to get filled and it’s been fun watching some of these young guys step up and make plays.”
Defensively, the Mountaineers will have to replace linebacker Howard McDonald, who led the Frontier Conference with 162 total tackles last season.
“It’s going to be hard to replace Howard,” Camp said. “But it was hard to replace Marc Airhart and Howie stepped in — that’s just the natural progression. We have guys that are going to be able to step up. But I feel good about the defense.”
The Mountaineers allowed 30.5 points per game last year and 467.6 yards per game.
Camp said the secondary is going to be the biggest strength of the Mountaineers’ defense this season. A unit that is known as the “bomb squad.”
“I know last year when things got hard some players liked to separate,” redshirt freshman cornerback John Payne said. “But we’re a family. We’re the lunch-pail defense. We have to play and stay together for us to be able to do good this year.”
But at the end of the day, Camp said the team’s best defense will be the offense.
“Being able to move the ball downfield and get first downs and get points on the board (will be key),” Camp said.
The Mountaineers play one more game this season than last year.
After opening with a non-conference game against Portland State University Thursday, EOU plays 10 straight Frontier Conference games.
Montana Tech is ranked No. 7 in the preseason rankings, while Carroll College is No. 12 and Southern Oregon is No. 14. EOU was picked to finish sixth in the conference.
“I’ve said this since I got here: the Frontier Conference is the best conference in the country,” Camp said.
“From top to bottom, anybody can win on any given day. It’s the team that blocks better and tackles better that’s going to win more football games.
“Obviously, we’ve been on the upper hand on a lot of those. But we gotta get some respect back in this conference. And that happens by playing good football.”