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Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best and Idaho coach Paul Petrino speak at Big Sky virtual media days; Preseason polls released

UPDATED: Thu., July 23, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic halted college sports in March, Big Sky Conference football media days were slated to take place in downtown Spokane at the Davenport Hotel this summer.

Instead, the conference went with a virtual option.

Head coaches from the conference’s 13 member schools answered questions Thursday that were streamed on Pluto TV. Players will answer questions on Friday.

Here are some of the questions Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best and Idaho coach Paul Petrino answered during an event originally planned to be in Spokane for the third consecutive year.

Best, Petrino and new Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin – EWU’s former head coach – were put together in a group of three for the video conference.

Coach Best, what would you like to see from (All-Big Sky quarterback) Eric Barriere this season that you didn’t see last year, and what kind of security does he bring to your offense?

Best: We’re highly blessed. Eric came in 2016 as a redshirt under Baldwin, and we’ve been afforded the opportunity to see his growth over the last 4-5 years. I’d like to see him progress in what he did last year and that’s maintaining the football, not turning it over, which he had a propensity to do in 2018 at times. Good defense can help overcome some of those turnovers, and we had a solid defense in 2018. I’d like to see him continue to challenge his teammates, stay engaged in the game as long as he can, continue to direct traffic on offense and continue to build on the leadership qualities that he presented. He’s not loud by any stretch of the imagination, but when he speaks, people listen. He’s a talented person, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally, it’s just a matter of him doing those things a little more often throughout the course of a game and the entirety of a season.

Coach Petrino, the league will be filled with new faces at quarterback, including a new starter for your team. What are your thoughts on the quarterback position at Idaho?

Petrino: I think it will be a real good challenge. We have Nikhil Nayar back and a transfer from UConn in Mike Beaudry. (Beaudry is) big with a strong arm and has played a lot of football, leading West Florida to the (NCAA Division II) national title game in 2017. We have a freshman coming in (CJ Jordan) who I hope a couple years down the road looks like EWU’s quarterback. He’s very athletic, very talented and can do a lot of different things. It will be a really good competition between the three, and we’ll have to find out who is going to help us win.

Coach Best, what are three biggest improvements EWU will need to compete for a Big Sky title and position yourself for a playoff bid?

Best: Based on sheer numbers – and numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story – red-zone efficiency on offense and defense and being able to create more turnovers on defense. We have to give the offense more opportunities to have the ball. Maintain some of things we’ve done for a long time here and that’s score a lot of points and have a lot of yards in the air and on the ground. If we can continue to push forward at the things we’ve been above average at, pick up the slack at the things we’ve been below average at, I think we’ve got a shot along with a lot of other teams in this league.

Coach Petrino, your defense is veteran-heavy, led by linebacker Christian Elliss. You also brought in some experienced transfers. What’s your overall take on the defense this year?

Petrino: Defense should be one of our strengths, for sure. We basically have our front seven back, they all got a lot of experience last year. A couple were injured at times and losing Charles Akanno in the middle of the year hurt us, because he was having an outstanding year. Having him back will be nice. Returning Elliss and Tre Walker as the two linebackers and with Akanno outside on the edge, so three guys should be the best on our defense and do a really good job for us. We had (defensive lineman Kayode Rufai) miss some games last year with injury, so it would be good if we could have him back and play throughout the year. (Defensive lineman) Nate DeGraw was probably the biggest overachiever and most improved on our defense, and he’s back. The biggest thing is our secondary. We’ll be strong up front and with the front seven, but it will be how we play in the secondary, and in this (passing) league, that’s a big thing. I do think we have guys that can rush the quarterback, so hopefully that should help.

Coach Best, how do you take an unbalanced Big Sky schedule and break it down when it comes to different programs?

Best: Well, you don’t have to face Beau Baldwin (in his first year Cal Poly) on the schedule, so that helps, knowing the success he’s had in this conference. It’s like opening a birthday present to see what the Big Sky has, schedule-wise, but it’s never going to be equal, but as equal as we can make it, the better off we are. Creating rivalries with Idaho back in the league allows us to have a game 70 miles from campus and recreate – what I’ve heard from coaches on our staff – some of that animosity back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But you play who’s scheduled. You can talk about who you play or don’t play, but the ones scheduled are the ones who show up to play. It’s what you have in a 13-team league where you play eight league games and the other four you watch from afar.

Coach Petrino, you always talk about your program and family, and that’s obvious in how you recruit brothers and sons (of former Vandals). Can you talk about the unique style and the family you have on the team?

Petrino: Anytime you can get an older brother – and if the little brother is good enough – get the little brother to play here, it speaks to the community and for the people on our campus. Anytime you have one of the brothers, you already know the family. If the older brother wants the little brother to play here, that means he had a good experience. The biggest thing we can sell at Idaho is our people, from the administration to the professors to people around the Kibbie Dome. It’s a great community to live in. We’ve been blessed to have pairs of brothers and sons of former players.

I’m getting old when I’ve recruited the sons of the dads I’ve already coached.

Big Sky preseason polls released

Eastern Washington was picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky coaches and media polls released Thursday.

Idaho was picked ninth by the coaches and eighth by the media.

EWU is coming off a 7-5 season (6-2 Big Sky) and postseason absence, and Idaho finished 5-7 (3-5 Big Sky).

Weber State, which has shared the Big Sky title the past three seasons, was picked first in both polls, followed by Montana and Montana State.

Weber State and Montana State reached the FCS semifinals in 2019. Montana advanced to the quarterfinals.

Defending co-champion Sacramento State was fifth in both preseason polls, followed by UC Davis, while spots 7-9 were mixed between Portland State, Idaho and Northern Arizona. Cal Poly, Idaho, Southern Utah and Northern Colorado were ranked 10-13 in both polls.

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