DESPITE MAJOR LOSSES, TALENTED EAGLES EXPECT TO VIE FOR NATIONAL TITLE AGAIN
Are these the best of times for Eastern Washington football?
It sure seems that way.
The Eagles are coming off another Big Sky Conference championship season, their fourth in five years, and are picked to contend for another despite a major coaching change and the loss of some serious star power on both sides of the ball.
More stars are waiting in the wings; new coach Aaron Best just needs to get them aligned.
These are his guys now. “Eastern Kinda Guys.” That’s EKG, for short, as if Best put his players and coaches under a machine to verify that their hearts are in the right place.
That wasn’t necessary. Best knows what he has: several dozen chip-on-the-shoulder overachievers who expect to win.
“Every time,” quarterback Gage Gubrud said with emphasis. “We expect to win every time.”
The Eagles were close last year, going 12-2 and finishing one play from the national title game. With 12 returning starters, one of the best quarterbacks in the land and an improving defense, they should be in the hunt again.
The Eagles will continue to fly.
For all the talk about running the ball more often, Eastern football isn’t going away from its roots.
Says new offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder, the Eagle offense will be “multiple, with timely shots, timely wrinkles and hard to predict.”
“Are we still going to be a pass-heavy team? Yes, but we’re going to be running the ball downhill,” Reeder said.
The key is balance and physicality, which Best hopes will pay off in December. A veteran offensive line in front of running backs Antoine Custer Jr., Tamarick Pierce and Sam McPherson will help keep the pressure off Gubrud and the next generation of receivers.
Many of those wideouts have been in the program for several years, including senior Nic Sblendorio, juniors Terence Grady, Stu Stiles and Nsimba Webster. The underclassmen are deep and talented and itching to help fans through life without Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill.
All of the wideouts know the system and they know Gubrud, which should ease the transition.
The system is the solution.
Going into the third year of coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s 4-2-5 scheme, the defense also figures to run downhill more this year.
After struggling in 2015, the Eagles got untracked last year in a seven-game stretch that saw opponents score just 105 points. In a point of comparison dear to Eagle fans, Montana was held to 16 points last year after scoring 57 a year earlier.
The Eagles lose All-American Samson Ebukam, but will field a beefy front line anchored by 320-pound nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiulu and Andre Lino. Opponents also will find the going tougher off tackle against ends Albert Havili and Keenan Williams.
Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun bring experience to linebacker, while the secondary will be a strength. With Josh Lewis, Nzuzi Webster, D’londo Tucker and Victor Gamboa, Eastern has a wealth of talent and experience at cornerback.
Less is more.
After two years of shared responsibility for special teams, Best has brought all the groups together under new assistant Heath Pulver.
“It is always an added bonus that every special teams unit hears one voice from one coach, and Heath is going to be that guy,” Best said.
Pulver has plenty to work with. He inherits coverage units that have been in the upper tier of the Big Sky for years. Kicker Roldan Alcobendas had a solid year in 2016, and so did punter Jordan Dascalo.
The biggest question is at punt return, where several players are vying to replace Kupp. Webster and Custer figure to handle kickoff returns.
Eagles at a glance
2016 record: 12-2 overall, 8-0 Big Sky
Aaron Best (first year)
Bodie Reeder (first year)
Jeff Schmedding (third year)
Last five seasons
4,058: Receiving yards gained last year by departed wideouts Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill
9.4: Average Eastern wins per season during the last decade
48: Touchdown passes thrown last year by quarterback Gage Gubrud
Sept. 2 at Texas Tech, 1 p.m.
Sept. 9 North Dakota St., 1:05 p.m.
Sept. 16 at Fordham, 10 a.m.
Sept. 23 at Montana, 5:05 p.m.
Sept. 30 Sacramento St., 1:35 p.m.
Oct. 7 at UC Davis, 6 p.m.
Oct. 14 Montana St., 1:05 p.m.
Oct. 21 at Southern Utah, 4:05 p.m.
Nov. 4 Weber St., 1:05 p.m.
Nov. 11 at North Dakota 11:05 a.m.
Nov. 18 Portland St., 3:05 p.m.
Projected starters for EWU
QB: Gage Gubrud, 6-2, 205, Jr.
RB: Antoine Custer Jr., 5-9, 190, So.
LT: Chris Schlichting, 6-5, 300, So.
LG: Tristen Taylor, 6-6, 315, So.
C: Spencer Blackburn, 6-2, 285, Jr.
RG: Matt Meyer, 6-5, 310, Jr.
RT: Kaleb Levao, 6-4, 290, Jr.
WR: Terence Grady, 6-5, 200, Jr.
WR: Nic Sblendorio, 6-0, 185, Sr.
WR: Stu Stiles, 6-0, 185, Jr.
TE: Henderson Belk, 6-4, 240, Jr.
DE: Albert Havili, 6-2, 270, Sr.
NG: Jay-Tee Tiuli, 6-4, 320, Sr.
DT: Andre Lino, 6-3, 270, Sr.
DE: Keenan Williams, 6-3, 255, Jr.
LB: Ketner Kupp, 6-0, 225, Jr.
LB: Kurt Calhoun, 6-2, 235, Jr.
NB: Cole Karstetter, 5-11, 205, Jr.
CB: Josh Lewis, 6-0, 190, Jr.
CB: Nzuzi Webster, 5-10, 180, Jr.
S: Mitch Fettig, 6-1, 200, Jr.
S: Jake Hoffman, 6-0, 195, Sr.
K: Roldan Alcobendas, 6-0, 180, Sr.
P: Jordan Dascalo, 6-1, 225, Sr.
LS: Curtis Billen, 6-2, 215, Jr.
KR: Nsimba Webster, 5-10, 180, Jr.
PR: Zach Eagle, 5-8, 175, Jr.
Big Sky predictions
1. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES: The Eagles have the best quarterback in the league in Gage Gubrud, an improving defense and a seamless coaching transition under Aaron Best. That should be enough.
2. North Dakota Fighting Hawks: UND could say bye to the Sky with a title, thanks to quarterback Keaton Stensrud and running back John Santiago. The title could be won or lost against EWU on Nov. 11 in Grand Forks.
3. Cal Poly Mustangs: Senior fullback Joe Protheroe, the league’s top returning back, leads the dreaded triple option. The defense will be better and the Mustangs don’t face EWU or North Dakota.
4. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks: If quarterback Jake Cookus stays healthy, the Lumberjacks will be a factor. Receivers Emmanuel Butler and Elijah Marks are the best tandem in the league.
5. Weber State Wildcats: The biggest wild card in the deck. The Wildcats lose some key players but are solid on both sides of the ball and the schedule is favorable.
6. Montana Grizzlies: Expectations have seldom been this low in Missoula, but the Griz have a strong receiving corps and one of the best front sevens in the league.
7. Montana State Bobcats: Sophomore QB Chris Murray will carry the Cats on his shoulders. The defense, solid last year, will have to get better for MSU to move up.
8. Southern Utah Thunderbirds: Looking for a dark-horse contender? The Thunderbirds return QB Patrick Tyler and eight starters from one of the top defensive units. They also get EWU and North Dakota at home.
9. Northern Colorado Bears: After back-to-back 6-5 seasons, the Bears will regress after heavy losses on defense and the skill positions. Plus, the schedule is brutal.
10. Sacramento State Hornets: It’s win or else for former EWU assistant Jody Sears (11-23 overall with the Hornets), who returns 18 starters and has a favorable schedule.
11. UC Davis Aggies: New coach Dan Hawkins inherits 14 starters but must find a new QB and some urgency on a defense that couldn’t begin to stop the run last year.
12. Portland State Vikings: No team lost more to graduation than the Vikings, who said goodbye to 23 seniors including two QBs. A tough schedule includes two FBS games and all the top contenders in the Sky.
13. Idaho State Bengals: The tumult of Mike Kramer’s “retirement” and the loss of 18 seniors will make for another long season in Pocatello under new coach Rob Phenicie.
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