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Eagles scramble to patch up offensive line

Aaron Best has just one request of Eastern Washington University’s football faithful as he attempts to patch together an offensive line for Saturday’s home opener against Big Sky Conference rival Montana State:

Spare the sympathy, please.

“We’re actually embracing this,” the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach said Thursday, when asked about the early-season spate of injuries that has depleted the number of players at his disposal to just nine. “Granted, I’ve never seen anything like it, but like I told our players during the game on Saturday (against Montana) in Missoula, it’s my job to coach everybody in the O-line, not just the guys who are starting.

“It’s never an ideal situation when you’re missing as many starters as we are, but we’re not asking anybody to throw a pity party for us. We’re going to be OK. Our seconds will be just fine.”

Such an optimistic assessment might seem a bit forced, considering the Eagles lost Ashton Miller for the year when the sophomore right guard ruptured his Achilles tendon in a season-opening loss to Washington, and saw both sophomore left guard Steven Forgette (fractured fibula) and redshirt freshman right guard Jase Butorac (knee sprain) go down with injuries in last Saturday’s 17-14 loss to the Grizzlies.

But Best insists the attitude of those players still standing is as good as it has been all season.

“Their psyche is probably just the opposite of what the average spectator thinks – you know, ‘Oh, gosh. Here we go.’ ” he said. “And why shouldn’t it be? This gives some guys who don’t normally play on Saturdays a chance to play, and why would your psyche be down because you’re going to get to play?

“It you’ve got kids like that on your roster, they should probably be playing B-8 football, where you only use three offensive linemen.”

Still, the situation has become so dire that sophomore Brandon Murphy, a former O-lineman who was moved to defense early in fall camp, has been reassigned exclusively to Best after being forced to take over for Butorac in the Montana game.

In addition, sophomore Drew Reynolds, a non-letterman, is scheduled to start at right guard in place of Forgette on Saturday. Forgette, who started 13 games as a sophomore last season, will be out at least another month, Best said. And Butorac will be used only in “emergency situations,” until his knee fully heals.

On the positive side, junior right tackle and two-year letterwinner Will Post, who missed the Eagles’ first two games with an ankle injury, played against Montana and is scheduled to start against MSU. Derrick Weston, a redshirt freshman who just became eligible after transferring from the University of Washington, where he was an invited walk-on but didn’t play last fall, will be available.

Best said it helps that senior center Chris Powers and senior left tackle Gabriel Jackson have managed to remain healthy.

“Those two guys and Will Post have started a fair amount of games in their careers, so those guys – who I respect and trust like they were my own kids – are coaches on the field,” he said. “And they’re doing a lot more coaching this week than if Forgette and Ashton Miller were available.”

Powers, a returning first-team all-Big Sky pick, who was named to The Sporting News first-team FCS all-American team as a junior last fall, addressed the injury situation in Eastern’s offensive front immediately following last weekend’s loss to Montana.

“We had a couple of guys who went down today, but we also had a couple of guys who stepped in and did their thing,” Power said. “There were a lot of things (Reynolds and Murphy) did 100 percent, even though it was wrong. They did it with passion, and they picked up things that I, personally, didn’t think they’d be able to pick up. … We’re kind of like a mosh crew right now. We’re putting ourselves together, and it’s rough. But I felt like we were strong up front, no matter who we had in there.”

When asked to run through his current depth chart on the offensive line, Best laughed and said, “Anybody wearing an ineligible number (in the 50s, 60s and 70s) is a prospect to play up front this week. Our team meetings this week have actually been offensive line meetings, because everybody is on call.”

Best said there was also an outside chance that a couple of freshmen who planned to redshirt this fall could be pressed into service in any more of his offensive linemen go down.

“We’re making sure those guys – if and when we do have to have to pull their redshirts down the road, which no one ever wants to do – are somewhat alert for that,” he said. “But a lot of chips have to be down for that to occur, so it’s still very much of a backup policy.”

Powers, Jackson and Post are listed as starters for Saturday, but beyond those three, nothing is certain.

“It’s going to be on-the-job training for a few of our younger guys, that’s for sure,” Best said.

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