Backup quarterback Gunner Talkington knows how abruptly he could be thrown into the line of fire.
The Eastern Washington sophomore experienced it in last year’s FCS national championship loss to North Dakota State when starter Eric Barriere took a brief injury spell, prompting the 5-foot-9 Battle Ground, Washington, native to enter the game early in the third quarter.
Talkington – also a placeholder who threw a touchdown pass on a crafty fake field goal play earlier the game – fumbled as he was sacked deep in Eagles territory, setting up another NDSU score.
He had a nice spring, though, completing 10 of 17 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown in the Red-White game.
Now Talkington – 2017 EWU Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year – is playing for keeps.
Talkington, true freshmen Trey Turner and Kellen Kranc and redshirt freshman Simon Burkett are each battling for the outright No. 2 job behind Barriere, a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate.
Two weeks into practice, it appears to be a two-way race between Talkington and Turner, with the former appearing to have the edge due to experience.
“Whenever my number is called, I’ll be ready,” he said.
But Turner, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound dual threat from California’s Bay Area, has the more desirable frame and a potentially higher ceiling, just a lack of college reps.
“Bringing (Turner) gives me more drive, makes me want to work even more, to get me better and to get him better,” Talkington said.
Barriere and a number of other starters were allowed to rest for the Eagles’ first scrimmage Saturday at Roos Field, allowing the young quarterbacks to sharpen their respective skill sets against a live defense.
Talkington ran primarily with the first-team offense, completing 7 of 14 passes for 154 yards – most of those yards on a 83-yard connection to Dre’ Dorton – and an interception. He also had 31 yards on three carries.
Turner (7 for 13, 54 yards, interception) played with the first and second teams and Kranc (9 of 15, 99 yards) played with the second and third teams. Burkett did not play.
Third-year head coach Aaron Best anticipated a contested battle for the No. 2 job, but likely won’t say who’s ahead until end of the month.
“Whether it’s Gunner, Trey, me, my wife or my kids, I love competition,” Best said, “because I think it shows your true color when you start pushing chips a lot deeper and a lot further. You put guys in situations where they are able to be successful based on their preparations, their knowledge and their luck. Let’s be honest, you need luck to be involved, but luck to me is preparation for that piece.”
Dorton, a speedy senior receiver who has come on strong the first weeks of fall camp, is also eager to see who emerges.
“I think it will be pretty close,” he said. “They both have different things they they’re good at, but Gunner has been stepping up. He had a good spring and is doing well now.”
EWU, picked to again win the Big Sky Conference this fall, according to league coaches and media, ran 80 plays on Saturday, plus special teams situations.
Many expected defensive starters or major contributors sat out, including safety Tysen Prunty, linebacker Jack Sendelbach, cornerback Ira Branch, safety Anfernee Gurley and defensive tackle Keith Moore.
Moore and safety Dehonta Hayes were shot near a downtown Spokane bar this summer, suffering non-life threatening injuries. Hayes had five tackles and Moore has yet to suit up since the start of camp.
Starting receiver Jayson Williams also sat out Saturday.
Dennis Merritt paced the first-team running backs, rushing for 49 yards on seven carries, including a 10-yard touchdown run. He also caught three passes for 25 yards.
Another proven first-team running back, Antoine Custer, had 27 yards on five carries and redshirt freshman Micah Smith, who saw mostly second-team reps, had 12 carries for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Anthany Smith and Demetrius Crosby each had interceptions. Tamir Hill and Joe Lang had six tackles each.
Justiss Warren, a graduate transfer linebacker and defensive end from Washington, had a sack, fumble recovery, forced fumble and four tackles.
Trevor Davis Jr., a senior linebacker coming off an injury in 2018, conceded that offense that the better of the defense on Saturday, at least early on.
“They had more juice than us,” Davis said. “Toward the end, we kicked it up. We have to get to starting fast every single time.”
With the graduation of the country’s best non-FBS kicker – Freddy Mitchell Award winner Roldan Alcobendas, also a punter – EWU has been looking for consistency in a replacement placekicker.
Andre Slyter, one of the top kickoff legs in the FCS last year (46 touchbacks), has shown consistency, hitting both field goal attempts Saturday from 45 and 43 yards, respectively, as well as an extra point.
“(Sltyer) told me today he was good from 60 yards out,” Best said.
EWU has one final scrimmage next Saturday at Roos Field before opening its season Aug. 31 at Pac-12 North power Washington.
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