Third-year Eastern Washington running backs coach Kevin Maurice was forthright Tuesday when discussing his group of experience-rich ballcarriers.
With the return of three seniors who have combined for 3,126 career rushing yards and 42 touchdowns, Maurice could have hinted at a competition for the No. 1 job.
“Antoine Custer is going to lead the pack, they’re going to feed off each other and they’re going to have fun,” said Maurice, a former UTEP running back. “(Custer is) having an outstanding camp. He’s healthy, gives me 100 percent every day, every drill.”
That’s good news for EWU purists who saw Custer battle injuries in 2018 and become the second option behind Sam McPherson, a senior who racked up 1,510 yards and 13 touchdowns before exhausting his eligibility.
Custer (1,817 yards career rushing yards, 23 touchdowns; 556 receiving yards, three touchdowns) was a first-team preseason All-Big Sky selection last season but missed the first three games of the year due to injury and was also slowed down at the of the season.
Custer, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound scatback, said he is ready for his best season, working behind one of the most decorated and experienced EWU offensive lines in recent memory.
“I want to go out with a bang and leave a legacy for the younger guys,” said Custer, a second-team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore and honorable mention as a junior. “Reaching (1,000 single-season) rushing yards would be great, but I’ll do whatever I can do to help the team move the ball.”
Custer, who prepped at national power De La Salle (California) High School, said it was frustrating watching a few games from the sidelines last season. He took solace in seeing his team flourish without him.
EWU set the program’s single-season record in rushing yards (3,839) and rushing touchdowns (41) because of talents such as McPherson, Custer, Walter Payton Award candidate quarterback Eric Barriere (613 rushing yards, nine touchdowns in 2018), and a couple of other capable ballcarriers.
Custer and fellow running backs Tamarick Pierce (847 career rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) and Dennis Merritt (472 rushing yards, four touchdowns) give the Eagles plenty of options, Maurice said.
Custer and Merritt are small, speedy backs and capable receivers out of the backfield who complement each other. Maurice said they will likely share the load, as they did in last week’s scrimmage.
“I want to go with the hot hand that particular time,” Maurice said.
Merritt had 119 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in EWU’s Red-White spring game.
Pierce was a bulldozer of a running back last season (7.9 yards per carry) before he sustained a serious knee injury in the FCS playoffs, missing spring ball after surgery. He is slowly being worked into the Eagles’ rotation and is expected to have another solid year.
“We’re being smart in his recovery and getting him back in the phase of things,” Maurice said. “He will play this season, and when he’s 100 percent healthy, he is going to be good.”
Maurice and third-year head coach Aaron Best hope to use more running backs if they continue to develop.
“We like to play three (running backs) in a game, but we’re trying to find No. 4 and No. 5 to really put the pressure on the three,” Best said. “And that depends on Tamarick Pierce’s status and where we go with that. But if he isn’t available at some point in the season, who is going to be the No. 3?”
Maurice has some capable youngsters in mind.
Freshman Isaiah Lewis had seven carries for 52 yards last season – he played in three games without burning his redshirt due to the new NCAA rule. He and redshirt freshman Micah Smith have seen time with the second-string offense in recent scrimmages, spring and fall.
Maurice is also high on true freshmen Silas Perreiah and Kyle Bryant (San Fernando, California).
Perreiah starred for four years at Northwest Christian in Colbert, rushing for 5,602 career yards and 72 touchdowns.
“He’s good and a local kid,” Maurice said of Perreiah. “He could get into four games (without burning his redshirt) this year.”
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