Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere lined up behind center Monday, his black position jersey compounding the near triple-digit heat.
The preseason Walter Payton Award candidate scanned the grass of EWU’s practice field before finding an open Dre’Sonte Dorton, who hauled in a 15-yard pass before outkicking the secondary in the scrimmage portion of the Eagles’ second full-team practice of fall camp.
White-clad offensive players roared from their respective sideline, albeit briefly. Junior safety Calin Criner picked off Barriere the next play, giving the red-clad defenders something to holler about.
The competition and temperatures were about as lofty as the Eagles’ preseason expectations.
EWU, the defending Big Sky Conference champions and national runner-up, was picked fourth Monday in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25.
North Dakota State, winners of seven of the last eight national championships, was the preseason No. 1, followed by James Madison, South Dakota State, EWU and the Eagles’ Big Sky foe UC Davis.
Eighth-ranked Weber State, No. 14 Montana State and 25th-ranked Montana rounded out the Big Sky members in the poll.
Jacksonville State, which the Eagles face in Alabama on Sept. 14 in a showcase FCS game, checked in at No. 6.
Third-year EWU head coach Aaron Best didn’t downplay the preseason respect.
“Everybody says ‘Ahh, we don’t look at (the polls),’ but why wouldn’t you?” said Best, whose team was also picked first in the Big Sky media and coaches preseason polls last month. “It’s nice to be acknowledged, but at the same time, it’s the preseason. We’re not winning the preseason, we’re trying to win in the season to give us a chance in the postseason.”
Junior linebacker Jack Sendelbach, sporting a dyed-red mohawk, paid no mind to the prognostication. .
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Sendelbach said. “It’s preseason for a reason.”
The Eagles return a wealth of talent and experience from 2018 at nearly every position, which was on full display Monday, the first day media was allowed to attend practice and interview players and coaches.
New coordinators and position coaches were at the controls of their respective units, including first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ian Shoemaker, first-year defensive coordinator Eti Ena, as well as Pat McCann (receivers), Allen Brown (cornerbacks) and Bryan Mills (safeties).
Most position groups appeared relatively crisp Monday.
“Even losing (former starting linebackers) Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun, the linebackers came back with a lot of depth,” Sendelbach said. “ And (linebacker coach Josh) Fetter thinks we’ve had some of the cleanest practices we’ve had this early in fall camp in a long, long time.”
EWU also boasts one of the most decorated and experienced offensive lines the country in All-Big Sky talents Chris Schlichting (right tackle), Kaleb Levao (right guard), Tristen Taylor (left tackle) and All-America center Spencer Blackburn.
Schlichting, a senior who has started every game at EWU from 2016-2018, is looking forward to again blocking for an offense that’s annually among the country’s best.
“We have guys across the board who have started 25-plus games each,” Schlichting said. “And with All-Big Sky and All-America honors. You can’t go across the country and see that.”
The one position decimated by graduation for EWU was the cornerback group, which lost three of its primary cogs and will now look to a group of athletic, untested underclassmen.
Young cornerbacks looked promising Monday, batting down a series of passes while locked on to experienced receivers.
“When you lose the entire two-deep from a position, that’s hard,” Best said of the cornerbacks. “So we’re going to have to find ways to create activity up front and back end, and change and disguise coverage.”
“We have athleticism (at corner), we just don’t have experience,” Best said.
The Eagles open the season Aug. 31 at Washington.
Shooting victim Hayes already in pads: Dehonta Hayes, a starting safety, is already healthy and playing after sustaining a gunshot wound to the neck in downtown Spokane last month.
In what Hayes said was a random shooting in a dirt parking lot around 1:30 a.m. on July 13, Hayes said he was hit in the neck and teammate Keith Moore was shot in the chest, also sustaining a non-life threatening injury.
Moore is also expected to play this season, Hayes said last month, but he was not at practice Monday.
Back in the saddle: Sendelbach, safety Anfernee Gurley and left tackle Tristen Taylor were a big part of EWU’s 2017 squad before sitting all or most of 2018 due to injury.
The trio sat out spring scrimmages, too, to nurse their respective injuries, but they were active Monday and appear primed for a strong 2019 season.
Hard-running ballcarrier Tamarick Pierce, who tore his knee in the FCS playoffs last season after averaging 7.9 yards a carry, also sat out spring scrimmages. He wore a helmet and pads Monday but was limited in drills.
Budding tight end Jayce Gilder also appeared healthy Monday after missing the spring due to an upper-body injury.
Swapping numbers: A number of EWU starters and veterans recently changed their jersey numbers, including Sendelbach (now No. 8),defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter (No. 4), defensive end Mitch Johnson (No. 5), and receivers Talolo Limu-Jones (No. 1) and Dorton (No. 10).
Ojoh’s mojo: Junior linebacker Chris Ojoh, EWU’s second-leading tackler last season, appears to have packed on a few more pounds of muscle this offseason.
Now that’s he’s stepped into a more substantial role, he exhibited a certain swagger Monday and was more vocal in drills.
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