Nsimba Webster has a proven ability of catching the ball in space and shifting his way upfield.
The senior Eastern Washington wide receiver did it plenty last fall, and, over the last two weeks, has made the Eagles’ secondary look silly on a few inside slants he turned into home-run plays.
EWU’s returning receivers – one of the team’s deepest position groups – can get open in the intermediate passing game. Few of them can do what the speedy Webster can after the completion.
What the Eagles lacked in 2017, however, was a consistent deep threat. Losing the FCS level’s finest trio of receivers from 2016 – two are of whom are now proven NFL pass-catchers in Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne – had much to do with the deep-ball void.
Before he went down with a broken collarbone against North Dakota State early last season, Terence Grady, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound target, exhibited flashes of a downfield threat.
Healthier and a year wiser, Grady said he’s now ready to shoulder that role.
“I’m hungry. I’ve basically been out the last two years with my redshirt (in 2016) and last year with the injury,” said Grady, who hauled in 10 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown in the first five quarters of the season against Texas Tech and NDSU. “I need a whole season. I’ve been working to get my body right.”
Grady, Webster, senior Zach Eagle and redshirt freshman Andrew Boston have been getting the majority of first-team reps in camp. Grady has primarily lined up on the outside. When he isn’t creating separation, has used his size to snag 50-50 balls downfield.
Boston, who also brings size at 6-foot-3, was last year’s scout team Offensive Player of the Year and turned heads in the spring.
“He’s going to be a stud,” Grady said of Boston. “He’s going to make plays.”
While the early praise of Boston is high, EWU returns eight wide receivers and tight ends who caught at least six passes last season.
Webster (59 catches, 693 yards, five TDs) is the leading returning pass-catcher from an aerial game that ranked eighth in the country. Primarily a slot receiver, Eagle (24 catches, 286 yards) has also been in the mix.
Jayson Williams (20 catches, 276 yards), speedy return man Dre’Sonte Dorton (10 catches, 164 yards) and Johnny Edwards (six catches, 62 yards) also gained valuable experience in the passing game, bolstering to the position’s depth. A few freshman, including Marques Hampton, have also had quality reps.
EWU, which often employs single tight-end sets, added some size to its receivers when it converted 6-5, 230-pound tight end Talolo Limu-Jones (11 catches, 148 yards, four TDs) to a true wide out in the offseason. Tight ends Jayce Gilder and Henderson Belk also return after starting a combined seven games last season.
“Each one of our guys presents challenges for the defense in a lot of ways,” EWU receivers coach Jay Dumas said.
Dumas, a former receiver at Washington State in the 1990s, said they’ll be properly used by offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder.
“We’ll be a combination of intermediate routes and trying to take some timely shots down the field,” Dumas said. “And just trying to get them the ball quickly, whether it’s our wide receivers or are running backs.”
Boston sees a multifacetted group of receivers.
“It’s a very diverse group. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things,” Boston said. “Guys that fast, guys that are big. All-around, we’re good together.”
A year ago, when the Eagles opened at Texas Tech, they did so with a group relatively inexperienced receivers.
That won’t be an issue Sept. 1 when the Eagles open their season against NCAA Division II power Central Washington.
All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud has witnessed the growth.
“They’ve come a long way learning the offense. That position is a hard position to learn,” Gubrud said. “I think the biggest thing for these guys and this whole offense is consistency.”
The Eagles will lock up today in a scrimmage at 3 p.m. at Roos Field.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.