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EWU true freshman backs are a hit

Eastern Washington RB Antoine Custer looks to pick up yards against Northern Iowa, Sept, 17, 2016, in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington RB Antoine Custer looks to pick up yards against Northern Iowa, Sept, 17, 2016, in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Allen,The S-R

Eastern Washington’s true freshman running backs are staying on top of their game. Even better, Tamarick Pierce and Antoine Custer Jr. are staying grounded.

That’s harder than it sounds, considering Pierce has seen the end zone four times in five games this season, while Custer is already a two-time special teams player of the week in the Big Sky Conference.

“It’s amazing but also humbling,” said Pierce, who along with fellow Californian Custer hit the ground running by arriving in the summer and learning the Eagles’ playbook.

“They’re been very mature about how they handled their summer and their offseason,” coach Beau Baldwin said.

Baldwin and his coaches rewarded Pierce and Custer by putting them on the field – not at the same time, mind you, but the old thunder-and-lightning cliché is an easy one.

Running backs coach Kiel McDonald uttered the phrase before practice Tuesday.

“But the thunder also has some gas,” McDonald said.

That would be Pierce, who at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds is already the Eagles’ main option in short-yardage situations. A summer spent studying his blockers has led to 20 carries for 62 yards and four trips to the end zone.

But thunder-and-lighting?

“No, we don’t think of it like that,” Pierce said.

Shedding praise like a bad tackle, Pierce said, “Honestly, it’s not me – it’s the linemen and the tight ends, and the coaches with the right game plan.”

The young backs, their young line and sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud are growing up together and making one another look good in the process. Entering midseason, the Eagles are 4-1 going into Satuday’s homecoming game against Northern Colorado and ranked near the top in almost every offensive category.

Meanwhile, the 5-9, 180-pound Pierce is still finding his footing in the running game. He has only 72 yards on 23 carries but made an immediate impact with a 14-yard touchdown catch in the season opener at Washington State.

That was only the beginning. Two weeks later, the Eagles were trailing Northern Iowa 24-7 at intermission but seemed transformed after watching Custer take the second-half kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

Last week, Custer did it again. With Eastern losing to UC Davis 23-14 at halftime, he returned the second-half kickoff 55 yards to help send the Eagles on their way to a 35-point quarter and a 63-30 win.

He also had a 16-yard return against the Aggies, helping him win a second Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week award.

“Antoine has stepped in and done well as a freshman,” Baldwin said. “He’s not afraid of those big moments and he’s come up with some huge ones for us right after halftime. It’s been impressive.”

Notes

Wide receiver and kickoff returner Nsimba Webster is out indefinitely with a broken clavicle suffered during his 61-yard kickoff return late in the first half against UC Davis. … Senior center Jerrod Jones also is out indefinitely with a knee injury in the Northern Iowa game. … Also, starting tackle Nick Ellison (rib) and backup lineman Will Gram (concussion) missed the last two games. As a result, sophomore Spencer Blackburn made the first start of his career at center against Northern Arizona and true freshman D.J. Dyer saw his first action as an Eagle in that game as a backup center. Sophomore Jack Hunter made his first career start one game later against UC Davis. … Receiver Stu Stiles (shoulder) is expected to play.

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