For Talolo Limu-Jones, being back on the practice field in August as opposed to February feels different.
In a word, he said, it feels “real.”
“Like, the spring kinda felt fake,” Eastern Washington’s leading receiver said Friday. “So I’ll say ‘real.’”
After playing a seven-game spring season, the Eagles were back at practice last week, barely more than three months after a playoff loss to North Dakota State in the FCS playoffs.
For 10 members of the team, including Limu-Jones, this really is the end of their eligibility. Four members of the team graduated from high school in 2015, and another six did so in 2016.
Normally, they’d almost certainly be gone by now. But the NCAA counts the COVID-19 spring season essentially as a freebie, and Calin Criner – one of the sixth-year seniors – is grateful for the chance to end his college career with a full schedule this fall.
“It was just a no brainer,” said Criner, who added a coaching minor that he plans to finish this fall. “If I had eligibility, there was no way that I could leave those guys hanging without me there. They mean too much to me. We’re too much of a family.”
They mean a lot to the coaches, too.
“Yeah, they get sick of me sooner than they used to, but they also put up with me more than they used to, too,” coach Aaron Best said with a smile. “We always talk about the fact we got four seven-year seniors on this roster, which is a story they’ll tell their wives and families down the road.”
During his time with the media on Friday, Best repeatedly came back to the idea that players “get” to play this fall, emphasizing that playing football is a special opportunity for all of them.
“I think they know this is it,” Best said of the seniors. “We have some guys on campus who are 18, and some guys who are 25. … I think there’s more of a sense of urgency that we know, or those guys know, that it is the last dance.”
One returner is quarterback Eric Barriere, a Walter Payton Award finalist and the reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
On the preseason all-conference team, Barriere is joined by Limu-Jones, offensive lineman Tristen Taylor – a seventh-year senior – and junior defensive end Mitchell Johnson.
However, the Eagles will be without junior safety Anthany Smith and senior running back Tamarick Pierce for “an extended period of time,” Best said.
Both Smith and Pierce were first-team All-Conference selections in the spring.
The Eagles were picked to finish third by both the coaches and media in preseason polls, and Eastern will begin the season No. 16 in the Hero Sports Top 25 and No. 19 in the Athlon Sports ranking.
Perhaps the most glaring need for the Eagles is to improve their run defense, which allowed, on average, 159 yards per game during its six Big Sky games and then 422 to North Dakota State last spring. Injuries and a lack of depth contributed to that, Best said.
“I challenged the defense from now until the end of the football year: We gotta tackle better,” Best said. “That is the one challenge from the head coach’s spot that we must tackle better. I didn’t say rush defense. I didn’t say pass defense. I didn’t talk third down. Just tackling overall. If it’s better, we’re better. We tackle better on defense, guess where we’re better at? Special teams, and if we can tackle better, we will certainly help our rush defense out.”
Eagles welcome ASU transfer QB
Best said he is not one to rely on transfers often, and indeed the Eagles’ coming players are overwhelming freshmen. Of the 105 players on the EWU roster, just five are transfers.
But Ryan Kelley, who was practicing with the veterans on Friday, was intriguing, Best said.
“We don’t look for transfers, necessarily, but in some positions we want to continue to develop and foster more competition in some of those areas, and we thought quarterback was one of those areas,” Best said. “This is Eric Barriere’s team, let this be known. He knows that, I know that, we know that. But after this fall season, as soon as that ends, the competition is opened up for the 2022 spring.”
“We think Ryan Kelley adds a dimension we may need,” Best said.
Kelley was a four-star recruit out of Chandler, Arizona, and at the time was ranked by 247sports as the 14th-best pro style quarterback in the country. He did not play in any games at Arizona State but finished his degree; therefore he is enrolled as a graduate transfer at Eastern Washington. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
Vaccination rate is ‘climbing’
At the Big Sky kickoff event on July 26, league commissioner Tom Wistrcill set a COVID-19 vaccination goal of at least 80-85% for each of its teams.
Best declined to offer specific figures about the Eagles’ vaccination rate, but he said the number was “climbing.”
“We are at about the goal we set two or three weeks ago,” he said. “We are climbing as we speak. We never feel good about where we’re at, just like football, but we feel like we’re at a good foundation right now.
“Probably in the next week or two we’ll have a better idea, but we are pretty darn close.”
When asked about staff vaccination rates, Best said “We are very, very, very, very, very, very close to 100%.”
Wistrcill said teams that cannot field a team will forfeit games this fall, if necessary.
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