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Eastern tight ends hope receiving catches on

Zach Gehring hopes to establish himself as a receiving threat this season at Eastern Washington.

“I’ve tried to get more involved with the receivers,” said Gehring, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior tight end from Castle Rock, Wash.

“If I can see a smaller guy doing something, and if I can do the same thing he’s going to do, then that’s a better way to do it,” Gehring said.

Which sounds great, but the Eastern coaches plan to establish something else first – namely a running game – before Gehring and the other Eagles tight ends can run free.

That didn’t happen much last season. After Jake Withnell caught the first touchdown pass in the season opener at Idaho, the Eastern tight ends grabbed exactly two more the rest of the year. All told, they had a collective 19 receptions for exactly 200 yards – just over 4 percent of the Eagles’ team total of 4,469.

Instead, the Eagles tight ends found the end zone mostly by blocking their way into it. And that’s the point: rushing yards per carry surged from 3.0 the previous year to 3.7, taking the pressure off the passing game and helping the Eagles finish 11-3.

That average isn’t close to the 4.8 yards per rush turned in by the 2010 national champions, but the Eagles are trying to go in that direction. During spring ball, they showed more pistol formations and threw more play-action passes into the mix – made to order for Gehring, the 6-5, 240-pound Withnell, and fellow tight ends Cody Humphrey (a 6-5, 250-pound senior) and sophomore Terry Jackson II (6-4, 250).

“The guys know what mindset the offense wants to be,” tight ends coach Brian Strandley said. “It starts with running the football, and the better we run the football, the more production we’re going to get in the passing game. That sells our play action.”

Selling head coach Beau Baldwin on the idea is another matter.

“I think we still have a long way to go before we decide what formations we like and what we don’t,” Baldwin said Monday morning before practice. “But they do become more of a factor in the running game, and we can run play action off that.”

Baldwin said he’s “excited” about the whole group, and hopes to split Gehring off the line on occasion.

“I like what he provides (in the passing game) along with being a tight end,” said Baldwin, who last spring moved tight end Ryan Seto to wide receiver.

After watching film of the first four practices, Baldwin said he was impressed at the team’s collective “physicalness,” especially in light of the warm weather predicted for later this week. Baldwin hopes to put the team in more “situations, so we’re ready to play in the hot afternoon.” Monday’s practice was the first of six two-a-day sessions of fall camp. The others will be held Wednesday and Friday and the same days next week. The first scrimmage will be held Saturday at about 9:45 a.m.