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Eastern Washington offense primed for another big season with return of nine starters

UPDATED: Sat., April 7, 2018, 5:59 p.m.

Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr., right, accounted for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season for the Eagles. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr., right, accounted for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season for the Eagles. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer Jr. never seems to have a grumpy moment. You get the sense that he does squats with a big fat grin.

It was no surprise, then, that Custer walked onto Roos Field on Tuesday with a smile big enough to match the promise of the next football season.

“I can’t wait,” Custer said as the Eagles opened spring drills.

And why not? The Eagles return nine starters from one of the most prolific offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision.

“A lot of teams don’t want to see the Eastern Washington offense,” coach Aaron Best said this week.

From senior quarterback Gage Gubrud to a veteran receiving corps to a deep, versatile offensive line, the Eagles enter Best’s second season with one of the most experienced lineups in the nation.

That includes the running backs, including returnees Custer, Sam McPherson and Tamarick Pierce.

Even the coaching staff is intact, a fact that Best appreciates more than he could know a year ago.

“Nobody had met each other,” Best said, recalling his first spring as head coach. “The transition this year has been a lot smoother, and it’s shown in the first two days.”

Because they’re on the same page, the Eagles figure to get through the playbook more efficiently this year.

Good thing, because there’s plenty of work to do in 15 spring practices and scrimmages.

The Eagles need to give more first-team reps to backup quarterbacks Eric Barriere and Gunner Talkington, find another starting left tackle after the surprise retirement of Brett Thompson, and build on the success of last year without falling into any malaise.

Fat chance of that, Custer said, after the Eagles were snubbed by the FCS selection committee despite a hard-earned 7-4 record and third-place finish in the Big Sky Conference.

“We don’t want to be in that position again,” said Custer, whose versatility is a big reason the Eagles’ balanced offense will be a tough load for anyone this year.

In the 2017 season, Eastern was eighth in FCS in passing (320.5 per game) and fifth in total offense (476.7), and was also 14th in scoring (34.5) and 11th in third-down conversions (46.1 percent).

Custer was big part of those numbers. As a true sophomore, he rushed for 776 yards on 157 carries, an average of 4.9. He also ranked fourth in receiving yards with 276.

McPherson wasn’t far behind, with 729 yards of combined offense.

“We’re fortunate to have these dynamic backs,” Best said.

Gubrud is coming off a year that exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own. Despite the departure of wideouts Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill, he threw for a Big Sky-leading 3,342 yards.

Gubrud was second in FCS in total offense per game (357.8), fourth in passing yards per game (334.2), third in FCS in points responsible (19.4 per game) and fourth in completions per game (26.1).

The key this year will be consistency. The offense went dry in the second half of a 46-28 defeat at Southern Utah and twice had to settle for field goals late in a 28-20 home loss to Weber State.

The maturation of offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder will be another key. Hired as a quarterbacks coach, he was promoted to OC when Fred Salanoa unexpectedly stepped down last summer.

“He’s a budding star in this game, and we’re fortunate to have him,” said Best, who expects that Reeder’s second year in Cheney will allow the Eagles to “really dive into the concepts he brought in from Oklahoma State.”

That includes going deep more often, something Best feels the Eagles got away from last year.


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