Eastern Washington’s annual Red and White game would have been six weeks ago, but the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the Eagles’ spring tuneup.
Every snap would have helped their pursuit of a return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
EWU, coming off a 7-5 season and postseason miss, returns a wealth of experience at skills positions, including All-Big Sky senior quarterback Eric Barriere, who orchestrated an offense that was tops in the FCS in yards per game (524.8).
It also welcomes back a gifted linebacker group that features sixth-year senior Jack Sendelbach, fifth-year senior transfer Ty Graham and redshirt junior Chris Ojoh, who sat out most of 2019 with a foot injury.
The talent haul was enough for HERO Sports and Athlon to recently place the Eagles – No. 18 and No. 22 – in their respective preseason top-25 polls.
But EWU will have to patch up holes from a offensive line gutted by graduation that was among the most experienced in the country, and, after surrendering 445 yards and 34.5 points per game in 2019, the Eagles’ defense seeks improvement.
Starters are rarely determined in the spring, but the onset of position battles and the ability to analyze the first-year development of underclassmen was lost.
“Honestly, it takes away from the younger guys more than it takes away from the older guys,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of missing the entire spring schedule. “And It doesn’t allow a player like Barriere to continue his leadership progression.”
Here’s a look at what EWU missed in a spring void of football as it looks ahead to its scheduled Sept. 5 season opener at Florida.
Two-time All-American center Spencer Blackburn, All-Big Sky right guard Kaleb Levao, All-American right tackle Chris Schlichting and starting left guard Will Gram have all exhausted their eligibility.
Tristen Taylor, a hulking sixth-year senior and All-Big Sky left tackle, now anchors an offensive line thin on starts but deceptively heavy on experience.
Left guard Wyatt Musser appeared in 26 total games in his freshman and sophomore seasons, tackle Matt Shook played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2018 before missing 2019 with an injury, and Brad Godwin, who appeared in nine games as a redshirt freshman in 2019, has been No. 2 on the depth chart at both right and left tackle.
Conner Crist, who backed up Blackburn the past two seasons, appears ready to take over center in his fifth year. He started two games on the Eagles’ offensive line last season.
The new guys
EWU lost an athletic, physical safety in 2019 leading tackler Dehonta Hayes but gained a physically gifted Pac-12 transfer in Ely Doyle.
Doyle, who came to EWU from Arizona State in December, would have benefited from learning defensive schemes in the spring alongside fifth-year senior Calin Criner, the Eagles’ most experienced safety.
Graham, a former Cheney star who started at Idaho his first three years, would have had live reps on the first-team defense this spring alongside Sendelbach and Ojoh. He redshirted in 2019 due to NCAA transfer rules.
Sendelbach said the Eagles, who primarily operate out of a base nickel defense, were toying with a 4-3 look with the three aforementioned linebackers.
Washington transfer Jusstis Warren was expected to make an impact in 2019, but the defensive end was injured in EWU’s season opener and missed the rest of the season. The sixth-year senior would have seen more reps on the first-team defense this spring with the graduation of Jim Townsend.
Another Washington transfer, running back Jamyn Patu, joined EWU earlier this year. The 2017 Seattle Times Player of the Year from O’Dea High School would have also benefited from extra reps in a new system.
The spring is also where redshirt freshmen begin to make a case for playing time, a chance to exhibit everything they learned in their first college season .
Youngsters like tight end and 2019 EWU Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year Blake Goebel and defensive end and Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year Brock Harrison may have seen more first-team reps in the spring. Each appeared in four games last season, the maximum amount of games allowed while still maintaining a redshirt year.
Ojoh, Warren and Shook were among the several EWU lettermen who missed most or all of 2019 due to injuries and were primed for a healthy spring.
Two proven sixth-year senior running backs are also healthy and ready to go.
Bruising ballcarrier Tamarick Pierce (1,104 career rushing yards, 18 touchdowns), shifty Dennis Merritt (554 career rushing yards, four touchdowns) – both injury redshirts in 2019 – and Barriere (1,219 career rushing yards, 17 toucdowns) will make up a dangerous and experienced running game.
Merritt, a starter in Week 1 last season before a season-ending injury in Week 2, was recently granted his sixth year and is now back on EWU’s roster.
Barriere also said he was dealing with a nagging, unspecified injury half of last season, which may have contributed to the Eagles’ slow start and his reluctance to keep the ball on read-pass option plays like he did in 2018.
Carry-over confidence in passing game
When the Eagles won five of their final six games last season, receiver Talolo Limu-Jones totaled the majority of his 577 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in that stretch.
Limu-Jones, who ranked second in the nation in yards per catch (24), could have taken that momentum into spring ball alongside another tall, proven receiver in All-Big Sky selection Andrew Boston.
Limu-Jones and Boston are returning starting receivers for a passing offense that totaled 3,805 yards. Freddie Roberson, who will be a sophomore, also started two games in 2019.
First-year offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker’s offense was appearing to click late in the season, making way for what would have been a much smoother spring than 2019.
EWU had one of the youngest and most inexperienced cornerback groups in the FCS last season, and it showed in the Eagles’ 2-4 start. The defensive backs made visible improvement as the season progressed. The Eagles finished the season yielding 266 passing yards a game.
The secondary didn’t get much consistent help from a relatively undersized defensive line that had trouble pressuring quarterbacks in 2019, tallying 18 sacks.
With most of the Eagles’ defense back, though, second-year defensive coordinator Eti Ena’s group could have continued its development in live spring situations.
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