SEATTLE – Despite the return of 15 starters from last year’s NCAA Division I national championship team that finished the season with 11 straight wins, including a 20-19 triumph over Delaware in the finals of the FCS playoffs, Eastern Washington faces plenty of unanswered questions heading into Saturday’s 4 p.m. season opener against Washington at Husky Stadium.
Some of those involve their FBS opponent and how much UW’s offense will change with sophomore Keith Price having taken over at quarterback for the departed Jake Locker. Or how much, if at all, Huskies junior running back Chris Polk might play after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 18.
But the more nagging questions involve the Eagles, who come into the game ranked No. 1 in both major FCS polls, but relying on a group of relatively untested cornerbacks, including starters Alden Gibbs and T.J. Lee.
“I’ve got a feeling those two will be tested early,” said Eastern’s defensive coordinator John Graham, who is also helping coach defensive backs this fall. “And their receivers are really, really good. In fact, their skill position players are as good as we’ve seen.”
The top three wide receivers for the Huskies, who are coming off a 7-6 season in which they tied for third in the former Pacific-10 Conference and beat Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl, are 6-foot-2 junior Jermaine Kearse, 6-0 senior Devin Aguilar and 6-1 junior James Johnson, who is coming off an injury-plagued sophomore season.
But UW also has a potential superstar in 6-2 freshman Kasen Williams, who swept the State 4A long jump, triple jump and high jump as a senior at Skyline High School last spring after being named the Parade National Player of the Year in football.
Kearse caught 63 passes for 1,006 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore and was named to the all-Pac-10 second team, while Aguilar hauled in 28 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns last fall.
In Price, UW’s third-year head coach Steve Sarkisian has a heady, athletic quarterback whose only downside might be a lack of experience. The 6-1, 195-pounder played in eight games as a backup to Locker last season, with his only start coming in a 53-16 loss at Oregon in which he completed 14 of 28 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown.
Graham has watched video of the Huskies’ loss to UO, but still isn’t sure what to expect from Price.
“Price is still very athletic, but he’s not Jake Locker,” Graham said. “We also watched film of Locker, and he was their best running back last year. He was unbelievable, and a whole different element.
“And now, with Price playing for the first time, you don’t know what they’re going to do with him, or how much of that playbook they had for Locker they’re going to leave in for him. There are just a lot of unknowns.”
Toss in the iffy status of Polk, who rushed for 1,415 yards – the second-highest single-season total in UW history – as a sophomore, and it’s easy to understand the many uncertainties confronting Eastern’s defense.
Still, Eagles head coach Beau Baldwin feels this year’s team is as ready for the challenges the Huskies present as any he has coached.
“You never know for sure until you play,” Baldwin said. “But you compare where we are to Augusts of the past when we’ve come out of camp, and I feel like, overall, we’ve got ourselves to a level very quickly in camp that we haven’t been able to get to before.
“We were installing more things early, and that’s a compliment to our guys and mentally being able to handle it all. I like where were at.”
Baldwin knows what a win would mean.
“It would be amazing, I’m not going to hold anything back,” he said. “Any time you’re an FCS school and you get a chance at a game like this against a very good (FBS) football team, it’s huge.
“It’s going to take our best effort, because they are such a quality football team, and playing on the road is always tough. But there’s no doubt about it, it’s the kind of game that could be remembered for a long, long time.”