After earning a share of the Big Sky Conference crown in 2018 and advancing to the national title game, Eastern Washington returns a wealth of talent and experienced commodities aiming for Numero Uno in the Football Championship Subdivision.
North Dakota State has had that distinction seven of the past eight years, but third-year EWU head coach Aaron Best’s team believes it has the means to be the last card on the table come early January.
With the return of electric junior quarterback Eric Barriere, a star-studded offensive line and over a dozen other proven skill players and defensive stalwarts, coaches and national pundits agree: The Eagles can push for their second national crown since 2010.
How does EWU – ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the coaches and media FCS preseason polls, respectively – handle those lofty expectations after the graduation of two dozen seniors?
“It’s good to know people think highly of you, and recognize your effort and what you can do,” said Barriere, a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate. “But it’s all just noise. We still have to go out there and prove ourselves.”
Junior linebacker Chris Ojoh agreed, but he said he’s ready to help elevate EWU’s standard, echoing the team’s 2019 credo “Advance the Standard.”
EWU, heavily favored to win another Big Sky Conference crown, has qualified for the FCS playoffs seven of the last 10 seasons.
“We can never replace the talent we lost,” said Ojoh, whose senior-loaded defense allowed just 16.9 points in conference play last season. “But we can take the attributes from last year and improve on them and always have that fierce mentality on defense.”
Barriere racked up 3,063 total yards and 32 touchdowns in 10 starts last season, numbers that could improve behind one the most experienced and decorated lines in the country.
Sixth-year seniors Spencer Blackburn (center) and Kaleb Levao (right guard) and fifth-year seniors Chris Schlichting (right tackle) and Tristen Taylor (left tackle) have all earned All-Big Sky honors in their careers, helping the Eagles set a program record in single-season rushing yards (3,839 and rushing touchdowns (41) last season.
The Eagles’ backfield also returns three senior running backs with a combined 38 total touchdowns, including starter Antoine Custer (1,817 career rushing yards). Big targets such as sophomore Andrew Boston (43 receptions, 541 yards in 2018) and tight end Jayce Gilder (10 career touchdowns) are also expected to help keep EWU’s video-game-like offense balanced.
EWU welcomes back a throng of defenders who’ve seen substantial playing time, including linebackers Ojoh (105 tackles in 2018), Jack Sendelbach, defensive ends Mitch Johnson and Jim Townsend, defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter and safeties Dehonta Hayes and Tysen Prunty.
EWU lost the most consistent leg in program history with the graduation of kicker and punter Roldan Alcobendas – the 2018 Fred Mitchell Award winner who scored 320 career points – and will now look to Andre Slyter, last year’s strong-legged kickoff man who ranked among the best in touchbacks (46).
How to play
EWU’s coaching staff took a hit this offseason when offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder accepted the same position at North Texas and defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding left for Boise State, ultimately becoming Broncos defensive coordinator.
New EWU play-caller and quarterbacks coach Ian Shoemaker – formerly the head man at NCAA Division II power Central Washington – and recently promoted defensive coordinator Eti Ena shouldn’t have to deviate much from a year ago with their seasoned groups.
The Eagles, once known for primarily chucking the ball all over the field, were one of the most balanced units in the country last season, a trend they hope to continue in pursuit of the program’s third national title game appearance this decade.
EWU will need a big-play receiver to emerge and be one of the top turnover-forcing teams in the country if it hopes to again run through the conference.
The Eagles ranked second in turnovers gained (34) and defensive touchdowns (six) last season, a tough act to follow with the entire cornerbacks group decimated by graduation.
Not one current EWU cornerback has started a college football game, so the Eagles’ defensive line will be counted on to provide even more pressure to help take the heat off of the Eagles’ inexperienced athletes in pass coverage.
How to win
EWU is aided by a Big Sky schedule that doesn’t include fellow 2018 playoff qualifiers UC Davis, Weber State and Montana State – all currently ranked the FCS preseason Top 25 – and won’t likely face a top-tier program in conference play.
The Eagles’ marquee games against Big Sky foes includes a Sept. 21 road date at proximity rival Idaho and a Oct. 26 game at true, hated rival Montana, two programs that underachieved and missed the playoffs last season.
EWU, which also faces a mediocre NCAA Division II program in Lindenwood, doesn’t face a Big Sky foe that won more than six games last year.
But the Eagles boast a rugged nonconference slate, opening the season at Pac-12 North force and 13th-ranked Washington (Aug. 31) before traveling down to northeast Alabama to face sixth-ranked FCS power Jacksonville State (Sept. 14).
If the Eagles can win at least 10 of their 12 games, they will likely secure a top-four seed in the FCS playoffs, a first-round bye and potentially home-field advantage through the playoffs, a key factor in reaching Frisco, Texas, home of the FCS national title game.
EWU often rode momentum sparked by defensive touchdowns and turnovers last season, so Ena’s group will need to try and summon much of the same approach.
Barriere, who has had multiple two-interception games in his young career, said he is still improving on his footwork and making the correct reads. If that trend continues, the Eagles are capable of re-creating their 2018 run to the title game.
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