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Best, Eastern Washington look back on successful month of spring football

Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best and his staff face some tough personnel decisions in the next week. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best and his staff face some tough personnel decisions in the next week. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

From Aaron Best’s perspective, spring football at Eastern Washington was nothing short of incomparable.

“That’s because I don’t have anything to compare it to,” joked Best, who’s been in Cheney for two decades but barely three months as head coach.

Best has made the Eagles his own during that short time, taking a winning formula from predecessor Beau Baldwin and adding a few tweaks. Here are the biggest:

  • A rebranding of sorts, with Best’s pet phrase “Eastern Kinda Guy,” or “EKG” becoming the team-wide motto;
  • The imposition of a more physical brand of football with an eye toward winning in December – even while meshing a new offensive staff;
  • The remaking of the Red-White Spring Game into more than a glorified scrimmage.

That last change went over big with the players.

“When you’re in a game like that, at the end of a long drive by the other team, it simulates a game-like situation a lot more than a scrimmage,” linebacker Erik Kacmarcik said.

And unlike past years, spring ball ended with the Red-White game. Under Baldwin, the Eagles held two or three more practices before moving into summer. No more.

“I was joking with (player) Andre Lino and asked him, ‘How would you still like to be practicing right now?’” Best said on Tuesday.

Lino shook his head: “No, no, no, Coach,” he said.

Instead, the Eagles are holding end-of-spring exit interviews. Voluntary summer conditioning is around the corner, with fall camp opening on Aug. 1.

Plenty of challenges await. A better running game is still more hope than reality, and the pass rush looks to be a weakness.

However, the Eagles return the top quarterback in the Big Sky Conference, along with solid units on the line, running back and receiver. The defense returns eight starters and may include the best secondary in the league.

For those reasons and more, expect Eastern to be picked at or near the top of the Big Sky.

Here’s what we learned about the Eagles in spring ball:

Quarterback – Some people thought All-American Gage Gubrud would be pushed in the spring by redshirt freshman Eric Barriere. It didn’t happen. Barriere showed mobility and a big arm, but struggled with his reads and consistency. “Two steps forward, one step back,” was how Best described Barriere, who still looks like a solid backup. Gubrud looked strong in spring camp even as he adjusted to a new offensive staff.

Running back – One thing is certain: The Eagle RBs will average more than the 18.4 carries they averaged last year. “You can take that to Vegas,” said Best, who also hopes for a go-to back to emerge. For now, Tamarick Pierce and Antoine Custer Jr. are a thunder-and-lightning combo, with Sam McPherson also looking solid. Based on spring ball, look for the RBs to be more involved in the passing game.

Offensive line – How confident are the coaches on this young-but-experienced group? Enough to move all-Big Sky left tackle Tristen Taylor (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) to the inside to beef up the running game. That in turn makes the most of a talented group of tackles, as Nick Ellison (the starter on the right last year) moves to the other side and Chris Schlichting goes to RT. Matt Mayer (6-5, 315) is coming off a strong year at right guard; so is all-leaguer Spencer Blackburn at center.

Wide receiver – The Eagles won’t need three guys to combine for 4,000 yards. But don’t think Best is going run-heavy because of a major dropoff in receiver talent. The Eagles return experience in Nic Sblendorio, Nsimba Webster, Stu Stiles, Zach Eagle and Terence Grady, but also fresh talent in Jayson Williams and Xavier James. Big-time talent is coming from this year’s recruiting class, so look for a redshirt (or two) to get burned.

Defensive line – Cooper Kupp went higher in the NFL draft, but the departure of Samson Ebukam (9½ sacks, 14½ tackles for loss) will leave the pass rush as the biggest concern on the entire team. North Central product Marcus Saugen (6-4, 220) tops the depth chart at rush end, but the Eagles also return Albert Havili, Keenan Williams and Jim Townsend. All three can play either end position. Eastern looks rock-solid inside with starters Jay-Tee Tiuli (who played faster after shedding 15 pounds last winter) and Andre Lino.

Linebacker – Miquiyah Zamora (109 tackles last year) is gone, but the rest of the linebackers return, including Ketner Kupp, Alex Kacmarcik and Kurt Calhoun, who had a breakout spring. Cole Karstetter is expected to reclaim his starting spot at roverback after losing most of the season to injury.

Secondary –The corners could be among the best in the conference, with Josh Lewis, D’londo Tucker, Nzuzi Webster and Victor Gamboa returning and Brandon Montgomery emerging as the starting nickel back. Mitch Fettig is back at one safety spot, but the battle will continue in the fall to replace Zach Bruce (115 total tackles, a team high) at the other spot. A crowded field includes Tysen Prunty, Jake Hoffman, Sam Inos and Dehonta Hayes.

Special teams – Expect Roldan Alcobendas and Brandyn Bangsund to renew their place-kicking rivalry in the fall, while punter Jordan Dascalo returns for his senior season. Curtis Bilen is back at long snapper. Questions abound on who will return kicks and punts, with a multitude of players getting tryouts.

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