LA GRANDE — When the Eastern Oregon Mountaineers took the field prior to the 2018 season opener against College of Idaho on Saturday night at Community Stadium, it was a special moment for the 103 kids featured on the season roster as it signaled the official start of the season.
It was even more special for 19 of those kids, though, as the “Eastern” script across their chest represented more than just their university. It represented their home, their families, and who they are as a person.
Nineteen Eastern Oregon natives are suiting up for the Mountaineers this season out of 30 total Oregonians that are on the team. It is a much different look for the Mountaineers than earlier in the decade where the team had only 12 or 15 Oregon natives on the team and a mere four or five from the east side of the state, and the surge stemmed from a change in the way longtime head coach Tim Camp recruited.
“That was one of our big goals to try and get some kids from around the area in our program, and they’re tough kids,” Camp said in his office following Saturday night’s 24-21 victory over College of Idaho. “We’ve got Heppner kids, we’ve got Vale kids, and all the sudden you see them out on the field and we can play football in Eastern Oregon, which is exciting to see.”
Pendleton High School has four alumni on EOU’s roster this season, and three of them earned their way into the starting lineup on Saturday night. Redshirt sophomore Kai Quinn began his second season as the starting quarterback, while redshirt junior receiver TJ Hancock was one of Quinn’s favorite targets in the game, and redshirt freshman PJ Schubert protected Quinn from the right guard position.
“I think it’s really cool because we’re not just teammates we’re actually, like, best friends,” Hancock said. “We hang out outside of football, too, so it’s really cool to be able to be three of the 11 starters on offense. There’s definitely a connection you have from high school, so it’s pretty cool to keep it going on.”
Quinn was solid in his 2018 season debut against the Yotes, where he completed 26 of 47 passes for 326 yards and an interception. He also ran for an impressive three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game-winning score. Facing third-and-goal from the three, Quinn took the snap and rolled to his left, looking for a receiver. Seeing nobody open, he tucked the ball in and decided to take it in for himself, running into a would-be tackler at the sideline, keeping his balance and spinning to his left toward the pylon for the score.
“That’s a grown man going down there and getting in the end zone,” Camp said of the touchdown, which put EOU up 24-14 with 13:40 left in the game. “When he’s stopped at the one and to be able to get in the end zone, that was a heck of a play.”
Hancock was the team’s second-leading receiver on the night, catching five passes for 62 yards, while also making the highlight of the night. On second-and-9 from the Yotes’ 33, Hancock was split wide left and ran a 20-yard corner route toward the end zone. Quinn locked on to Hancock and floated a pass perfectly to Hancock, who reached out with only his right arm — his left arm being held by the defensive back — and secured the ball between his shoulder pad and his bicep as he hit the turf at the 5-yard-line.
“The one by TJ might be, I’ve been coaching college football for 22 years, that might be one of the best catches I’ve ever seen, without a doubt,” Camp said. “And when I saw him make that ... we’ve been watching him in practice and he’s faster, he’s on point, he knows where to go and then to be able to use his body like he did there, to one-hand that?”
The play set up a field goal for the Mountaineers for a 17-14 lead late in the third quarter. Hancock said that Quinn deserved a lot of credit for placing the pass in a perfect spot for him to reel it in.
“The DB was in pretty good coverage, I think he had a hold of my left arm so I could only go up with one so I was lucky enough to pull it in I guess,” Hancock said. “It was a good ball (from Kai). Quarterback put it where only I could catch it.”
The three former Buckaroos are not the only former Oregon prep standouts that Camp is excited about, though. Heppner alums Patrick Collins and CJ Kindle are both in their third year at EOU and have worked their way into the team’s two-deep roster. Kindle is the team’s backup middle linebacker and plays on all the special teams units, earning the title “special teams guru” from Camp, while Collins is the starting long snapper and backup left tackle.
Camp said he talked Collins into moving from defensive line to offensive line roughly a week prior to Week 1 and believes that the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Collins has tremendous potential at the position.
“Patrick is going to be an All-American offensive lineman here and I finally convinced him a week ago,” Camp said. “We had a long conversation and I told him, ‘You’re a smart kid, you’re big and athletic and strong and if you come over with me now, you’re going to get way more reps in. ... He’s gained so much ground with me over the course of the last week.”
Across the sidelines on Saturday, College of Idaho’s team featured a pair of Hermiston alums as Landon Clark-Gammell and Keegan Crafton started their fourth seasons with the Yotes. Clark-Gammell started at defensive end for the Yotes and registered three tackles, while Crafton is competing for a spot at tight end.
And Camp has more local kids in the pipeline for the next few years as well. Pendleton’s Jacob Banks is a redshirt sophomore defensive lineman and former Hermiston stars Jonathan Hinkle (linebacker) and Joey Gutierrez (receiver) are taking their redshirt year as true freshmen, where they will learn the ropes of the college game and be ready to make an impact starting next season.
“They’re a pleasure to coach and they come from great programs, Camp said. “I need to continue to get the Vale kids, to get the Heppner kids, to get the Pendleton kids. I got two great Hermiston kids here, finally, and I just believe that’s the direction, if we can get these kids and keep them here then guess what? We’re going to have a pretty good football program so I’m excited about it.”
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