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Any worries, Eastern Washington football fans? We’re here to help

Terence Grady is among the candidates to start at wide receiver as the Eagles look to replace the talented trio of Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington football coach Aaron Best says he sleeps pretty well these days, no matter what might worry him on the field.

A winning tradition, 13 returning starters, the top returning quarterback in the league and a smooth transition under Best – that was enough for the experts to pick Eastern to finish second in the Big Sky Conference race.

Die-hard Eagle fans may not feel the same way. The season opener at Texas is still a month away – more than enough time to chew your fingernails at what might keep Eastern from winning its fifth Big Sky Conference title in six years.

Still worried? We have the answers.

First question:

Are we still going to throw the ball … ?

On the day he was appointed as Beau Baldwin’s successor, Best promised a more physical approach. On offense that means more run-heavy sets.

But if you think that means double tight end sets on every down and the loss of what makes Eagles football so much fun, guess again.

“I think it’s just a little more emphasis on the run,” said offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder. “We’re not going to run the Wisconsin offense and go with no receivers.”

“Are we still going to be a pass-heavy team? Yes, but we’re going to be running the ball downhill,” Reeder said.

… And if we do keep throwing the ball, who’s going to catch it?

When the Eagles said goodbye to Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill, they also lost 4,000 yards of receiving – in 2016 alone. No other FCS school has lost that much – ever.

But leave it to Reeder to make your Eagles cup half-full.

“Everybody’s talking about the guys who are gone, but nobody’s talking about the guys who are ready to fill those voids,” said Reeder, ticking off the names of the returnees at wideout.

Senior Nic Sblendorio, experienced juniors Nsimba Webster, Stu Stiles and Terence Grady lead a talented group that’s bolstered by two of the best recruiting classes Eastern was seen at wideout.

Yes, there will be a dropoff, but the passing game will still be among the best in the nation.

But what if Gubrud gets hurt?

That’s a big concern, considering that backups Eric Barriere, Gunner Talkington and Nick Moore haven’t played a down of college ball.

That’s another reason for a more-physical approach and a big dose of play-action. Last year, Gubrud led the Eagles in both carries (134) and yards (606), and Best said he would never let that happen again.

Yes, Gubrud still could go down, but don’t you feel better that the Eagles are taking pains to protect him?

That’s good, but who’s going to take down the opposing quarterback?

Every week during the Big Sky conference call, opposing coaches had the same worry when asked about the Eagle defense. “No. 3,” they said, almost in unison.

That would be Samson Ebukam, who’s now chasing quarterbacks in the NFL. Last year Ebukam had 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss – numbers that no single returning Eagle could hope to match.

“You don’t replace him, you do it by committee,” Best said.

The answer is a team approach that starts with stopping the run. Projected starting ends Keenan Williams (260 pounds) and Albert Havili (270) should make the Eagles more effective on the edge, hopefully opening more rushing lanes for their teammates.

And finally, what about that tough schedule?

Eagles fans should be accustomed to that by now. But take heart, this year’s September schedule is easier than last year’s, when Eastern went 3-1 against Washington State, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Northern Arizona.

Let’s take a look at this year’s opening foursome:

  • The money-game opener at Texas Tech isn’t as daunting as it sounds (the Red Raiders were 5-7 last year and had the worst defense in FBS last year). Advantage: Tech, but not by much.
  • North Dakota State comes to town a week later, probably still wanting revenge for the playoff loss at Roos back in 2010. Eagle fans want payback too – they lost in overtime last year in Fargo. Eags win a close one.
  • The biggest unknown is the trek to the Bronx for a game against Fordham, but the Eagles have the better personnel. Eastern, by a lot.
  • A week later, Eastern opens Big Sky play at Montana. Washington-Grizzly is a tough venue, but the Griz are down this year. Eagles come up big.

Feeling better, Eagles fans?

Good. Now get some sleep.