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2018 Eastern Washington Eagles will be loaded with experience

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 23, 2017, 7:15 p.m.

Aaron Best’s first season in charge of the Eastern Washington program nearly had too many ups and downs to count. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Aaron Best’s first season in charge of the Eastern Washington program nearly had too many ups and downs to count. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

That wasn’t bad for a rebuilding year, right?

Some would say there’s no such thing at Eastern Washington, which has done nothing but win during the last decade.

Viewed through that prism, the Eagles’ 7-4 record probably is worth a C+.

That’s if you grade on a curve. But what about all those curveballs, the ones that were thrown at this program from mid-summer to Thanksgiving?

Before the season began, first-year coach Aaron Best had to build a new offensive staff from scratch, then had to replace his offensive coordinator when longtime friend Fred Salanoa got homesick and returned to Hawaii.

Meanwhile, two starters left the team for personal reasons.

More adversity followed: an ambitious schedule that left the Eagles overmatched in the first two games against Texas Tech and North Dakota State; smoky skies that dislocated practice ahead of the home opener; Hail Mary passes completed before halftime by two opponents; a slew of injuries at almost every position; and off-the-field troubles involving two key players.

“Not only curveballs, but knuckleballs, sliders … you name it,” said Best, whose team overcame all of that but couldn’t handle the beanball delivered on Sunday by the FCS selection committee.

“That was something no one thought was going to happen,” said Best, comparing the Eagles’ non-selection to the sighting of a UFO.

“The hardest part was delivering that kind of news to the players when you don’t have an answer,” Best said.

“They all had the same question: ‘Why?’”

Critics will ask a few more questions: Why do the Eagles insist on beating their heads against a brutal nonconference schedule? Why did the Eastern offense stagnate in the second half of several late-season games? Why couldn’t the defense get off the field, or force a few more turnovers?

For critics still grading on a curve, the harshest marks were handed out after a 28-20 Homecoming loss to Weber State. It was a down-to-the wire finish in a must-win game – the ones Eastern usually finds a way to win.

Not this time. Trailing 21-17, the Eagles did almost everything wrong in the final eight minutes. On third-and-goal from the 3, a poorly blocked run wats blown up for a two-yard loss.

On fourth-and-4, the Eagles “had a had a play we really felt good about,” Best said. The Eagles never got to use it, thanks to an offsides penalty that pushed them back to the 9 and forced a field goal.

Desperately trying the get the ball back, the Eastern defense gave up another touchdown. Given two more chances to tie, the offense couldn’t cross midfield.

Fifteen days later, those eight minutes meant the difference between another Big Sky title and the heartbreak of last Sunday.

“It doesn’t meet the standards,” Best said. “A 7-4 is a bad season for us but a great season for a lot teams.”

In the same breath, Best talked about the positives: leading the conference in offense with a new coaching staff and the gut-check wins at Fordham, Montana and UC Davis.

“We do well in adversity,” Best said.

Early look at 2018 Eagles

Heading into the offseason, Eastern Washington fans can look ahead to fielding one of the most experienced teams in the Big Sky Conference next season.

The Eagles return 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Gage Gubrud and the entire offensive line. On defense, depending on how you look at it, they’ll bring back at least eight, and up to 10.

Here’s a unit-by-unit look at the Eagles as the 2017 season ends:

Quarterback: Here’s what a down year looked like for Gage Gubrud: 3,342 yards passing on 62 percent completions for 26 touchdowns and 12 picks. Against a difficult schedule and with a new group of receivers and coaches, that was good enough for seventh in the nation. Expect an even better senior year from Gubrud, who now ranks fourth in EWU history with 8,568 career passing yards. Backup Eric Barriere was solid in his lone start; hopefully he gets more playing time next year as he prepares to take the reins as a redshirt junior in 2019.

Running back: Sam McPherson and Antoine Custer Jr. aren’t merely thunder and lightning. Both are as versatile as it gets, making this one of the strongest positions on the team going into next year. As a true sophomore, Custer averaged almost five yards per carry on his way to 776 yards. McPherson averaged 6.0 yards, and the pair combined for 528 yards receiving.

Wide receiver: After a brutal start, the new guys got in sync with Gubrud and helped fuel one of the top passing offenses in the nation. Expect seniors-to-be Nsimba Webster (693 yards this year) and Terence Grady (injured for part of the season) to have big senior years, and to see the younger generation (Jayson Williams, Zach Eagle, Dre’Sonte Dorton and Johnny Edwards IV) to carry on the tradition.

Offensive line: This group took a hit before the season began when starting left tackle Nick Ellison quit the program for personal reasons. Combined with several injuries, that forced plenty of juggling. Right guard Chris Schlichting moved briefly the left side before returning when his backup, Kaleb Levao, was lost for the season. Meanwhile, Tristen Taylor – an all-Big Sky tackle last year – began the season at left guard, then started on game at tackle before going inside as Brett Thompson took over at left tackle. The Eagles also lost right guard Matt Meyer three games into the season. The good news: Everyone will return next year.

Defensive line: Run defense took a major hit with the loss of nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, then another when senior tackle Andre Lino was sidelined in week four. Dylan Ledbetter and Jonah Jordan moved up the depth chart and played solidly, while starting ends Albert Havili and Keenan Williams were steady all year. Havili and Lino will graduate, but Tiuli is expected to get a sixth year of eligibility.

Linebackers: Starter Alek Kacmarcik quit the team during the summer, then starter Ketner Kupp was lost for the first three games before getting back in time for the win at Montana. Kurt Calhoun (73 tackles) went on to start 10 games, and Jack Sendelbach did a solid job filling in at both spots, especially against the run. Cole Karstetter finished with 31 tackles after missing most of the previous year with injury. All will return next year.

Secondary: The Eagles lose safety Jake Hoffman and backup cornerback Victor Gamboa, but will get back starting corners Josh Lewis and Nzuzi Webster along with safety Mitch Fettig. Also back are corner D’londo Tucker, who missed most of the season with injury; and safety Tysen Prunty, who got four starts while Hoffman was injured.

Special teams: The Eagles’ biggest off-season priority might be replacing all-conference punter Jordan Dascalo. They also lose starting placekicker Roldan Alcobendas, but backup Brandyn Bangsund will return, along with long snapper Curtis Billen. Electrifying kickoff returner Dre’Sonte Dorton (ranked fifth in the nation) will return and so will punt returner Zach Eagle.