Antoine Custer and Sam McPherson lead ‘scary’ group of Eastern Washington running backs

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)

As revered as Eastern Washington’s offense has been, it’s often void of a 1,000-yard running back.

Just one EWU ballcarrier – Quincy Forte, who churned out 1,208 yards in 2013 – has rushed for over a grand the last seven seasons.

But as many programs continue to scale back their carries in today’s throw-it-all-over-the-field culture, coach Aaron Best and offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder have stressed a commitment to the ground game.

VIDEO: RB Sam McPherson, QB Gage Gubrud and RBs coach Kevin Maurice discuss EWU’s backfield, pic.twitter.com/s9QTgnh5RU

— Ryan Collingwood (@SR_Collingwood) August 17, 2018

The Eagles’ 156.3 rushing yards per game in 2017 was the program’s third-best output in 10 years, trailing only a pair of seasons in which Forte and the electric Vernon Adams – one of the best running QBs in all of college football at the time – shared the backfield.

Forty-six percent of EWU’s offensive plays were on the ground last season, a near five-percent jump from 2016 – Beau Baldwin’s final year as head coach.

Increased carries coupled with the return of proven ballcarriers Antoine Custer and Sam McPherson could end the 1,000-yard running back drought this fall.

“It’s nice to finally have a running game here at Eastern that we can really count on,” said McPherson, who rushed for 477 yards and two touchdowns on 80 carries last season. “When the passing game isn’t working well, we can run it.”

Custer started 10 games last season in the Eagles’ lone-back, wide-open offense. The explosive junior accounted for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground and hauled in 21 passes for 276 yards and two scores.

Custer, an All-Big Sky Conference selection who also started six games as a true freshman, complements McPherson, according to running backs coach Kevin Maurice.

“I treat Sam and Antoine as 1A and 1B, they feed off each other,” Maurice said. “They bring different things to the table. In terms of what we want to do offensively, the schemes that we have. They can do just about everything. And we ask them to be great without the football.”

McPherson, who caught 19 passes for 252 yards and two scores last season, believes he and Custer are similar players.

“We’re both scatbacks, we both can hit the hole really hard. I feel like we work just really well together, too, just as a tandem,” he said.

And when quarterback Gage Gubrud isn’t shredding secondaries with his arm, he’s often moving the chains with his legs. In two seasons, the two-time Walter Payton Award finalist has rushed for 873 yards and 11 TDs.

Gubrud prefers the former, he said, but likes when his team’s balance keeps defenses guessing.

“It enhances our run game a lot when I am a threat to run in the read game,” Gubrud said. “We can open up some things in the read and do some special stuff with (the running backs). It will open up my run game as guys will collapse on them and it will open up theirs when I make guys pay for collapsing.”

He’s quite high on the ballcarriers lined up behind him.

“We’ve got some dudes back there for sure. It’s a pretty scary backfield for opposing teams, and having a better line will help them,” Gubrud said, referring to a starting offensive front with nearly 100 combined starts.

Custer missed the first week of practice last week with what Best described as a minor injury, but he has participated this week without pads. He’s expected to be at full strength soon, Best said.

His absence in full-contact drills has given more reps to a pair of capable reserves who’ve seen the field over the last two seasons, including Tamarick Pierce, who rushed for 220 yards and seven touchdowns.

Last season, Pierce and Dennis Merritt, another returning running back, scored touchdowns against Fordham, including an 80-yard scamper by Merritt.

Pierce and Merritt have peeled off big runs in the camp the last two weeks. Freshmen Micah Smith and Isaiah Lewis have also looked good early, Maurice said.

“We jell,” McPherson said of the running backs group. “We’ve proven that in camp with some big runs. A lot of just solid runs, too. Ones that we missed in the past.