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Five things to watch at Eastern Washington’s Red-White Game

UPDATED: Fri., April 26, 2019, 6:23 p.m.

Eastern Washington University coach Aaron Best gathers his team after practice on  Dec. 12  in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University coach Aaron Best gathers his team after practice on Dec. 12 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington’s annual Red-White Game will be a platform for the unproven.

Young cornerbacks and kickers top that list.

The rest of EWU’s position groups are loaded with experience, so Saturday’s noon scrimmage at Roos Field will give coaches a chance to evaluate the most capable reserves before posting their summer depth chart.

The Eagles return more than 40 lettermen from last year’s FCS national runner-up team, many who’ve missed the spring to nurse injuries and rehab from surgery.

Defensive linemen Dylan Ledbetter, linebacker Jack Sendelbach, and defensive backs Tysen Prunty, Anfernee Gurley, Calin Criner, Kedrick Johnson and Dehonta Hayes have been out.

On offense, tight end Jayce Gilder, running back Tamarick Pierce and left guard Will Gram have also been shelved.

Despite the thin spring numbers – more than 20 players have been out – teams were divided up for the Red-White Game earlier this week.

The White team offense Saturday will feature standout dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere, two of his favorite All-Big Sky linemen in Tristen Taylor (left tackle) and Kaleb Levao (right guard), running back Dennis Merritt and receiver Andrew Boston.

“I want to go out there and make plays, and so do my teammates,” Boston said. “But at the same time, both teams want to win. It will be highly competitive.”

The Red team has backup quarterback Gunner Talkington and starting running back Antoine Custer in the backfield.

Up front, they’ll have All-American center Spencer Blackburn and and All-Big Sky right tackle Chris Schlichting.

Here are five things to watch in the Eagles’ third and final spring scrimmage:

Who will stand out

as the big-play receiver?

New EWU receivers coach Pat McCann was a big, strong pass catcher during his playing days at Western Washington.

So is his new position group.

Between Boston (6-3, 200), Talolo Limu-Jones (6-5, 215) and Jayson Williams (6-1, 205), Barriere has a few big, athletic targets and downfield blockers – but who will slide into Nsimba Webster’s home-run receiver role?

In the first two spring scrimmages, big plays through the air have come at a premium. Speedy junior Johnny Edwards believes he can reprise Webster’s role of beating defensive backs in a foot race.

He can prove it Saturday against a young group of corners.

Young cornerbacks

can earn respect

Ira Branch, Darrien Sampson, Brad Alexander and Keshaun King have about a dozen career tackles between them. Darreon Moore, who played sparingly last season, has missed the spring with injury.

Nothing replicates true in-game experience, but the Eagles’ greenest position group can earn respect if it can give EWU’s proven receivers trouble.

They’ve done fine so far.

Consistency needed

in kicking, punting

Andre Slyter has one of the strongest legs in the FCS, something he proved last year when he ranked among the best in touchbacks.

He’s had mixed results as a placekicker, though.

Slyter, looking to replace Fred Mitchell Award winner and All-American Roldan Alcobendas, made half of his field-goal attempts (2 for 4) in the first two scrimmages and was 5 for 5 on extra points. He was 4 for 7 on extra points last season.

“His leg is very strong,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “But he’s got to put the (football) between the pipes. He’s done that a lot this spring, but he’s also had some hiccups.”

At punter, a position Best said is up for grabs, Slyter, Trevor Bowens, defensive back Anthany Smith, and tight end Julian Houston are competing for the job.

Shoemaker’s offense

New offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker – the former head coach at Central Washington – hasn’t strayed from EWU’s 2018 balanced attack and increased run production.

In recent scrimmages, Shoemaker has used the pistol and a more up-tempo, no-huddle pace, led by Barriere. Custer and Merritt have also flourished as the single back.

No. 2 QB still up for grabs

Earlier this spring, Shoemaker said there’s still a battle for the backup quarterback job, a decision he wouldn’t make until August.

Talkington – a 5-foot-10 former Battle Ground, Washington, star – has been getting the overwhelming majority of second-teams reps.

Talkington (8 for 20, 172 yards, two interceptions), Simon Burkett (5 for 12, 60 yards) and Michael Taras (2 for 9, 28 yards) have combined for one touchdown pass this spring.

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