More than anything, the Eastern Washington players and coaches emerged from four weeks of spring football with a sense of completeness.
The depth charts are full and the playbook thickened. More important, no one was seriously injured.
Even the schedule is whole, thanks to the addition last week of Central Washington. The Sept. 1 home game against the Wildcats is the next big test for a team that should be favored to win the Big Sky Conference.
Eastern met most of its other markers during spring ball, emphasizing the run on offense and taking the ball on defense.
“The amount of reps was something we wanted to focus on, and be as efficient as we could,” coach Aaron Best said. “The players attacked spring well.
“We’re happy,” Best added Tuesday, three days after the Red-White Game. “In a sense, we always want to continue to work.”
More work will come in the fall. The Eagles figure to be among the top teams in the Big Sky Conference. There’s unfinished business, however, on the offensive line, special teams and above all the pass rush.
Here’s a look at how the Eagles look after spring ball.
If the main goal of spring camp was to get a close look at the backups, mission accomplished. Gage Gubrud will own every major school record if he makes it through his senior season. But what if he doesn’t? Redshirt sophomore Eric Barriere has speed and a big arm, but he’s still an unknown commodity in game situations, and he had an uneven spring game. Backups Gunner Talkington and Alex Motonaga will try to push Barriere, and don’t forget about incoming freshman Simon Burkett.
Like Gubrud, Antoine Custer Jr. had little to prove going into spring. Going into his junior season, the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder is the closest thing to a feature back at Eastern since Quincy Forte in 2014. Stronger than he looks between the tackles and a big pass-catching threat, he had 1,177 all-purpose yards last year. Those numbers could go up this year, although Sam McPherson, Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt are more than capable backups. The Eagles also signed three backs out of high school.
Are there enough throws to go around for this deep group? Seniors Terence Grady, Nsimba Webster and spring game MVP Zach Eagle will compete not only against juniors Dre’Sonte Dorton and Jayson Williams but a host of underclassmen. Johnny Edwards IV got a leg up on the competition when his redshirt was burned last year, but redshirt freshman Andrew Boston looked like a future star in spring. “He plays the way he prepares – very professional,” Best said. Marques Hampton Jr. also figures to compete for playing time, and several incoming recruits have a chance to see their redshirts burned.
As Best often said when he coached the offensive line: “Chemistry is for the fall.” And so it was in the second year of spring ball for his successor, Jase Butorac, who moved around some players this past month. The sudden retirement of left tackle Brett Thompson means an opportunity for others, perhaps converted tight end Beau Byus or redshirt freshmen Matt Shook and Wyatt Musser. Otherwise, the Eagles are a veteran group, with starting guards Tristen Taylor (who could move to back to left tackle) and Jack Hunter, all-conference center Spencer Blackburn and right tackle Chris Schlichting (who’s also a candidate at left tackle). Depth is abundant, but this group will need to improve its run blocking. The tight ends look strong, with Talolo Limu-Jones, Henderson Belk and Jayce Gilder.
Nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli was back in the trenches and wreaking havoc in spring – good thing, as the Eagles sorely missed his 330 pounds last year following an early-season injury. His replacement, Dylan Ledbetter, will probably shift to the other tackle spot and compete with returnee Jonah Jordan. Things are less certain at end, which is probably the biggest question mark on the team. “The thing that strikes me is, who is going to get to the quarterback?” Best said. With Albert Havili in the pros and Keenan Williams’ future still unclear, the Eagles are looking at Nick Foerstel, Darnell Hogan, Conner Baumann and rising freshmen Debore’ae McClain and Mitchell Johnson.
Time sure flies – strongside linebacker Ketner Kupp will be a senior this year. So will Kurt Calhoun, the starter at middle linebacker, making this one of the most experienced groups in the Big Sky. Junior Jack Sendelbach has started at both positions, and another senior, Cole Karstetter, returns at rover.
Fans shouldn’t fret about 2019, because young talent is waiting in the wings. Developing that talent was the main goal in spring, because the Eagles are loaded at cornerback with seniors Josh Lewis, Nzuzi Webster and Brandon Montgomery – and D’londo Tucker, if the NCAA grants him a sixth year of eligibility. At safety, Mitch Fettig looks to cap a stellar career, while Tysen Prunty, Dehonta Hayes and Calin Criner compete at the other spot. Anfernee Gurley is a solid alternative at safety or nickel.
Roldan Alcobendas and Brandyn Bangsund are back for their final season at placekicker. Newcomer Andre Slyter and transfer Trevor Bowens will compete at punter this fall. Dorton and Nsimba Webster expect to handle kickoffs and Eagle is the favorite to return punts, but the Eagles looked at others last month. Long snapper Curtis Billen is back for his senior year.
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