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Eastern Washington receivers share spotlight while piling up numbers

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 19, 2017, 9:25 a.m.

Eastern Washington wide receiver Jayson Williams has 13 catches for 202 yards and three touchdowns. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington wide receiver Jayson Williams has 13 catches for 202 yards and three touchdowns. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spreading the wealth certainly has enriched the lives of a few wide receivers at Eastern Washington.

Take Jayson Williams, a redshirt sophomore who doesn’t know where he’d be without Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill.

“Every day they taught me something about being a professional, about being a leader,” said Williams, who spent his first year in Cheney as a redshirt freshman, watching and learning with the best.

Then he watched and learned some more, for the entire 2016 season. That’s hard on the ego for anyone, especially an all-state receiver who had 1,266 receiving yards as a senior Lincoln High in Tacoma in 2014.

“Those last two years were a little rough,” said Williams, who swallowed his pride and played on special teams.

His biggest performances came in the classroom, where he made the all-Big Sky Conference academic team.

Reflecting his 3.53 grade-point average, Williams has caught on in a hurry. It’s been almost three years since he played on the line of scrimmage, but Williams already has 13 catches for 202 yards and a trio of touchdowns.

“I’m really enjoying this,” Williams said.

So are the rest of the Eagle receivers, who may be the ultimate strength-in-numbers story in the Inland Northwest this year.

Without a proven star, they’ve helped eighth-ranked Eastern go 4-0 in the Big Sky heading into Saturday’s game at Southern Utah.

“Before this year, there were a lot of names nobody knew about,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “It’s great for them to get their names out there.”

That’s not entirely true. Among the top five receivers in the Big Sky, there’s not an Eastern player to be found, and it’s unlikely that any Eagle will hit the 1,000-yard plateau this year.

Instead, 10 players have at least 100 receiving yards. Senior Nic Sblendorio (52 catches for 505 yards) and juniors Nsimba Webster (46 for 534) and Zach Eagle (16 for 195) are the go-to wideouts, but they account for only 46 percent of the Eagles’ output.

That’s a far cry from last year, when Kupp, Bourne and Hill accounted for 72 percent of Eastern’s receiving yards.

There’s another wrinkle in offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder’s offense: Receptions aren’t just for wide receivers any more.

Running backs Sam McPherson and Antoine Custer Jr., have combined for 27 receptions for 410 yards and five scores.

Meanwhile, tight end Talolo Limu-Jones has only seven catches but for three scores and a 17.7-yard average.

The benefits are obvious.

“It’s just the feeling that you have a lot of people who are able to do a lot of things,” Best said.

Quarterback Gage Gubrud has more targets, which means more late nights of film study for opposing defensive coaches.

“And now we can keep rotating guys, so it’s helping keep us fresh,” Gubrud said.

For many, that baptism of fire was a little too warm. The passing game looked out of sync in blowout losses against Texas Tech and North Dakota State, and the wide receivers were the lightning rods for criticism.

Now they’re lighting it up with the top passing game in the conference.

For his part, Williams has a bright future but hasn’t lost sight of the past. He tries to stay in contact with Kupp, Bourne and Hill.

“Whenever I get the chance,” he said.

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