Defending Big Sky Conference champion and FCS national runner-up Eastern Washington has its first official practice Sunday.
Here are five questions for third-year head coach Aaron Best’s team – the preseason Big Sky favorite – as it prepares for its Aug. 31 opener at Washington.
Will Eric Barriere take the next big step?
No longer is Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere the fresh-faced, relatively unknown talent who helped lead the Eagles to the FCS national title game after stepping in as a Week 6 injury fill-in starter.
When the dual-threat junior was recently named to the preseason Walter Payton Award watch list, it cemented his place as one the top offensive players in the country.
Now that the Big Sky Conference is familiar with Barriere (3,056 total yards and 32 total touchdowns in 2018) and his tendencies, will the former three-star recruit continue to elevate his play under first-year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker?
Working behind one of the most experienced and decorated offensive lines in the country should certainly help the cause.
Barriere, who is often compared to former EWU great and budding Canadian Football League quarterback Vernon Adams, has the opportunity to show the country his tools on two big stages to start the 2019 season, first on a Pac-12 stage at 13th-ranked Washington (Aug. 31) and at FCS power Jacksonville State (Sept. 14).
Who will be the breakout skills players?
EWU’s offense has been revered nationally throughout the 2010s, producing 1,000-yard receivers and yard-churning running backs at a steady clip.
Who will those guys be in 2019?
Last year, seniors Sam McPherson (1,510 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and Nsimba Webster (1,379 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) stepped up with career-best seasons to help change the complexion of the Eagles’ balanced, dynamic offense.
Will senior scatback Antoine Custer reach the 1,000-yard mark this fall, something many thought he’d do in 2018 before being beset by injuries? Or will fellow capable running backs Dennis Merritt, Tamarick Pierce or a freshman talent like Kyle Bryant emerge as the primary ballcarrier?
EWU has its share of big, strong experienced targets like Andrew Boston, Talolo Limu-Jones and Jayson Williams, but who will be the Webster-like home run receiver? Speedsters like Johnny Edwards, Dre’Sonte Dorton and redshirt freshman Freddie Roberson appear ready to make that leap.
Will a favorable Big Sky schedule help?
Four Big Sky Conference teams qualified for the FCS playoffs in 2018 – EWU, UC Davis, Weber State and Montana State – and many coaches and pundits believe they’ll return in late November.
Because of the 13-team league’s unbalanced schedule, EWU doesn’t have to play the other three this season.
Of the eight Big Sky foes on the Eagles’ 2019 schedule three finished above .500 last year: Montana (6-5), Idaho State (6-5) and North Dakota.
North Dakota, which also finished 6-5 in 2018, left the Big Sky last year, but games against the now-independent Fighting Hawks still count in the conference standings until their 2020 move to the Missouri Valley Conference.
Road rivalry games at Idaho (Sept. 21) and Montana (Oct. 26) are among the highlights of EWU’s schedule, which also includes a Nov. 2 home game against Northern Arizona, ranked last year before the injury of All-American quarterback Case Cookus, who returns for the Lumberjacks.
But what EWU may lack in resume-boosting Big Sky games against FCS Top 25 teams, it makes up for with a nonconference slate that includes road games at Washington and Jacksonville State, which has qualified for the last six FCS playoffs.
When EWU and Jacksonville State square up in Jacksonville, Alabama, on Sept. 14, it will likely be an FCS top-10 affair featuring two Walter Payton Award candidates, Barriere and JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper, a transfer from Clemson.
Will nasty streak continue on defense?
Known for its high-octane offense, EWU showed its 2018 defense was just as menacing, leading the Big Sky in fewest points allowed (16.9 per game) while ranking second in the country in turnovers (34) and first in defensive touchdowns (six).
Former defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding has the same job at Boise State, Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli is at Seahawks training camp and leading tackler Ketner Kupp is at Rams training camp.
But due to injuries to this senior-laden defense last year, several underclassmen carved out significant roles, including impressive junior linebacker Chris Ojoh.
The Eagles return about a dozen defensive players who either started or logged a lot of snaps last year, including All-Big Sky defensive end Mitch Johnson (second team) and defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter (honorable mention).
EWU appears to still be deep at linebacker, defensive line and on the back end of its secondary, but it the Eagles hope to mimic last year’s shutdown unit, they will need their inexperienced cornerbacks to mature by the time pass-happy Big Sky play begins.
New defensive coordinator Eti Ena’s defense graduated its primary cornerbacks and is working primarily with untested underclassmen.
Where will Jusstis Warren play?
Best said last month that he wasn’t yet sure if Washington graduate transfer Jusstis Warren would be an outside linebacker or defensive end, but there’s a good chance the 6-foot-2, 250-pound athlete will play both.
Warren, who appeared in 31 games for the Huskies as primarily an H-back, has moved back to defense in Cheney, where he hopes to be the next former Pac-12 player to shine for the Eagles. He joined the team this summer.
Former EWU star Tevin McDonald (UCLA), offensive lineman Jake Rodgers (WSU) and punter Jordan Dascalo (WSU) are some of the more recent ex-FBS players to have boosted EWU.
Warren was a three-star recruit at Lincoln High in Tacoma, where he played alongside fellow fifth-year EWU players Jayson Williams and safety Dehonta Hayes.
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