Few offensive lines in college football return four players with all-conference distinction.
Eastern Washington is one of them.
The Eagles’ five-man front is also among the most experienced.
Sixth-year seniors Spencer Blackburn (center) and Kaleb Levao (right guard) have been in Cheney since Vernon Adams wore a red jersey. Fifth-year players Chris Schlichting (right tackle) and Tristen Taylor (left tackle) have also racked up dozens of starts.
Left guard Will Gram has been the freshest face on the first-team offense this spring. He’s also a fifth-year senior.
Gram, who grew up in tiny Troy, Idaho – a 10-minute drive east of Moscow – is relishing the experience.
“Coming from 8-man football, it’s a dream come true to play for an offensive line with much tradition,” said Gram, who is 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. “I’ve learned a lot here over the years.”
He watched his older brother, Steven Gram, make the transition to 11-man offensive lineman at NAIA Dakota Wesleyan, where he was a two-time all-conference talent.
The sizable Gram bothers, who are three years apart, were dominating forces in the Idaho 8-man football ranks, each earning all-state honors.
Nearby Idaho – where Gram’s mother works in the school’s natural sciences department – didn’t show either brother much interest, but plenty of small schools did.
Will Gram was set on playing Division I football, though, even if it meant putting himself out there.
Gram attended Eastern Washington’s football camp going into his senior year. His frame and athleticism caught the eyes of then-offensive line coach Aaron Best, now the Eagles’ head coach.
Gram was admittedly raw, but nothing EWU hadn’t successful molded in the past. He was offered a partial scholarship.
His predecessor, former EWU left guard and Gonzaga Prep product Jack Hunter, was a walk-on.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if I didn’t go to that camp,” Gram said.
Gram redshirted in 2015 and has appeared in 27 games the past three seasons, working his way up the depth chart.
He still winces when recalling his day in full pads at EWU.
“I was so raw in pass protection, because we mostly ran the ball at Troy,” Gram said. “I went from a situation where I was usually one of the best players on the field to just another guy.”
He’s seen plenty of Idaho 8-man stars make similar transitions.
Gram’s high school rival, former Genesee star Reggie Tilleman, wrapped up his career last season at Montana, where he was a starting defensive lineman.
Salmon River – an 8-man program in Riggins, Idaho, which Gram faced his senior year — produced Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, one of the best defensive rookies in the NFL last season.
The 2014 Salmon River graduate transitioned to 11-man with a redshirt season at Boise State. He was a first-round draft pick a year ago.
Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis, a starter the last four seasons, also used a redshirt year after starring at Council, another Idaho 8-man football school.
Gram’s proud to have played in the lowest rung of Idaho high school football. His Twitter even includes the words “8man.”
“Good players have come from that level,” he said.
If Gram locks down the starting job this fall, he wouldn’t be the first 8-man product to start in Cheney.
In the early 1990s, EWU featured All-American tight end Jesse Hardt, who played his high school ball at Odessa and grew up in nearby Marlin.
A few other EWU contributors played small-school ball, just not the smallest classification.
Blackburn (Meridian of Bellingham), defensive end Jim Townsend (Okanogan, Washington), running back Dennis Merritt (Cascade of Leavenworth, Washington) and tight end Jayce Gilder (Corvallis, Montana) all starred at high schools with fewer than 500 students.
Gram said he’s learned a lot from Blackburn, an All-American who helped the Eagles rack up 7,923 yards of offense last season and a program-best 3,839 on the ground. EWU fell to North Dakota State in the FCS national title game.
“Being the new guy on this line, it’s pretty reassuring that experience and talent around me,” he said.
EWU’s second spring scrimmage is 1 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field.
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