Throughout the Eastern Washington football season, which ended with a second-round playoff loss at Montana, 57-41, on Saturday, fifth-year head coach Aaron Best repeatedly praised the leadership of the Eagles’ three classes of seniors.
He had many to choose from. The extra year of eligibility granted to all college athletes because of the pandemic threw into flux what exactly the terms “senior,” “junior,” “sophomore” and “freshman” even meant, popularizing the term “sixth-year senior.” Even a handful of Eagles qualified as “seventh-year seniors,” having graduated from high school in 2015.
But after playing 20 games during the 2021 calendar year, many Eagles players have, finally, exhausted their eligibility, and even a couple are foregoing that extra “COVID year” to move on from their college football careers. Still others could enter the transfer portal.
So, the roster the Eagles bring to spring camp in 2022 will be without some familiar names like Eric Barriere, Talolo Limu-Jones and Jack Sendelbach. But it will also bring a number of new ones in its next recruiting class, which will be announced next week.
Here, then, are five questions heading into the offseason:
Who will be the starting quarterback against Oregon in the 2022 season opener?
There is no more pressing question for the Eagles, who have been led by a Walter Payton Award candidate – their most recent one – for three-plus seasons: Barriere took over in the middle of 2018 and never gave up the reins, racking up historically great numbers in his 51 games with the Eagles: 301.8 yards of offense per game, a 62% completion rate, 22 total rushing touchdowns and another 121 passing.
The Eagles have a two-decade track record of replacing one productive quarterback with another one, but this time there is no obvious heir. Gunner Talkington has appeared in 38 games the last four years but has attempted just 64 passes. Current underclassmen Simon Burkett and Trey Turner drew praise during fall camp, and there’s also Arizona State transfer Ryan Kelley, who joined the team in the summer and has at least one year of eligibility left and possibly two.
How will the coaching staff be structured?
After Ian Shoemaker resigned as offensive coordinator, Pat McCann was elevated on an interim basis from wide receivers coach and led the offense to continued effectiveness after the mid-season change. McCann hasn’t been a full-time Division I coordinator before, but the Olympia native has been with the Eagles since the start of the 2019 season. If he is elevated, he could remain as wide receivers coach as well and a quarterbacks coach could be brought in, or Best could choose to organize the staff another way.
After splitting the duties among a handful of coaches, the Eagles could also bring in a full-time special teams coach – which they had in 2019 – after those units were exploited by other teams throughout the 2021 season. Three blocked punts were costly in the three-point loss to Weber State, and overall the Eagles’ kickoff coverage was among the least effective in the Big Sky. The Eagles also were without their starting kicker and long-snapper for stretches of the season, and it is clear that of the three main units – offense, defense and special teams – the last was the Eagles’ weakest this year.
Who will step up at wide receiver?
Given the present success of EWU grads Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne in the NFL, this position group for the Eagles has raised its national profile the last decade. In an offense that snaps the ball as frequently as the Eagles do, there are plenty of opportunities. Limu-Jones and Andrew Boston led the group this season with a combined 2,091 yards and 13 touchdowns on 140 receptions. Both will be gone next year, though, with Boston apparently choosing to leave one year of eligibility on the table.
Yet the Eagles have a promising pair sticking around in current underclassmen Freddie Roberson (49 receptions, 779 yards and six touchdowns) and Efton Chism III (57, 735, 9) and a stable of options behind them who will be counted on to produce as well. Tight ends Blake Gobel, Dylan Ingram and Nolan Ulm – all eligible to return next fall – also combined for 34 receptions and nine touchdowns this season.
Who is going to tackle the other team’s players?
Surely someone will, but it won’t be departing seniors Ty Graham, Jack Sendelbach or Calin Criner, a trio that combined for 298 of the team’s 958 tackles this season. Defensive lineman Josh Jerome will be the leading returner in the category with 61. Teammates raved all season about the leadership of those three, and they will take with them a wealth of experience.
At safety the Eagles seem to have clearer options to replace Criner: Anthany Smith (six games, 38 tackles), Ely Doyle (40 tackles, three pass breakups) and Keshaun King (29 tackles, two interceptions) all saw significant time throughout the season, and Smith, who missed the first half of the fall with an injury, was an all-conference safety last spring. At linebacker, senior-to-be Cale Lindsay is sure to get his shot at a full-time starting job with Graham and Sendelbach gone. But after him, no other returning linebacker saw much gametime at all at the position.
How active will EWU be in the transfer portal?
With the NCAA’s transfer rules changing last spring, it became easier than ever for a player to switch schools under the new one-time waiver rule. Traditionally Eastern has not been a program reliant on incoming transfers to bolster its roster; it had just a handful this year among its 105 players. Whether that changes heading into Best’s sixth season as head coach is something to watch heading into spring camp, when the Eagles will compete to replace six starters on offense and another three on defense.
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