As good as Eastern Washington has been at identifying and developing talent at quarterback, it has been just about as good at maintaining the positions directly in front of those signal callers.
This season appears to be no different.
Led by All-America tackle Tristen Taylor, who needs to play nine games this season to become the Eagles’ all-time leader in games played, Eastern’s offensive line returns all of its five starters from last spring’s 5-2 squad that has aspirations this year of winning the program’s first national title since 2010.
Taylor’s college career, which began with a redshirt season in 2015, will come to an end after this season; like all college athletes, he was granted an extra year of eligibility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But coach Aaron Best, who has been around the program now for 25 years, said Taylor has made it clear he doesn’t want to be done playing football just yet.
“We know he has bigger goals,” Best said of Taylor. “His intentions are to play beyond college. He made that clear in the recruiting process, and along the way he’s got some guys on board a little bit more with the preparation, with the professional way to prepare, because it takes more than the minimum to be better at your craft, and he’s done a fabulous job up to this point.”
Taylor already has completed his degree in criminal justice, and Best joked that Taylor has been around so long he could have three degrees by now. (Taylor is working on a second in psychology.)
But the draw of chasing a national title, and also having a proper pro day with NFL scouts able to run him through in-person workouts, drew Taylor back, he said.
“I think we can be the No. 1 offense in the country with the whole line coming back,” Taylor said. “Last year I was the only returning starter so I was nervous about that, but now that everyone’s coming back, receivers, running backs, and all that, we’ll scare a lot of people.”
Part of “all that” is Eric Barriere, the latest in a line of Eagles quarterbacks to land on various watch lists for national awards.
But another reason is the Eagles’ penchant for identifying and developing offensive linemen.
In the last 20 seasons, the Eagles have had 18 first-team all-conference selections, and over that span nine players have been named a first-team All-American . Taylor was selected as such last spring, joining names like Jake Rodgers (2014) and Michael Roos (2004), two future NFL players.
Best played offensive line at Eastern and was a first-team all-conference selection in 1999, and after that he joined Paul Wulff’s coaching staff, where he eventually became offensive line coach and later offensive coordinator before his promotion to head coach for the 2017 season.
He said they just coach the position differently than anyone else.
“There’s more asked of our guys. Our playbook is about 3 inches thicker than most,” Best said. “We spend a lot of individual time and not a ton of team time, so we individualize the techniques that we do in the situations and schemes that we present, and that started long before I became the offensive line coach here. That was the Mike Kramer, the Paul Wulff era. … We continue to build upon the legacy that was left.”
That legacy includes a few Eagles who predate Best, including NFL linemen Ed Simmons (who played at Eastern from 1983 to 1986), Kevin Sargent (’88-’91) and Tom Ackerman (’92-’95).
Aside from Taylor, who has 47 career starts at Eastern, the Eagles also return left guard Wyatt Hansen, a freshman who started five games last spring, and senior center Conner Crist, who has nine starts for the Eagles. On the right side they return juniors Wyatt Musser (guard) and Matt Shook (tackle) who both started all seven games last spring.
Experience doesn’t necessarily mean a team or position will be better, Best pointed out, but it is still something the team relies on.
“I think you always have to lean on experience,” Best said. “I think the challenge is developing habits, because in any situation you’re always going to fall back to your habits, whether that’s (foot)ball or whether it’s (not). So we’ve got to create better habits in situations to fall back on the habits we expect.”
Starters to rest Wednesday
When the Eagles will hold their second and final scrimmage of the preseason on Wednesday, the starters won’t be playing in it.
Best said the No. 2’s will receive the majority of the reps during the 80- to 90-play event at Roos Field and that the focus will be on solidifying the backups at various positions.
Eastern Washington begins its season at FBS program UNLV on Sept. 2. It will be the first meeting between the Eagles and the Rebels, who play in the Mountain West.
Eagles meet commissioner’s vaccine threshold
In late July, Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill set the goal that each of the league’s 13 football rosters reach a vaccination rate of at least 80% and added that teams would be required to forfeit if they couldn’t field a team.
On Monday, Best said Eastern Washington had cleared that percentage.
“We have hit the 80% (mark),” said Best, who earlier this month confirmed that he himself is vaccinated. “I’m not gonna get specific but we are north of 80% and have been for quite some time.”
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