It began with a strange, unfamiliar feeling.
The weather. The month. The circumstances.
But as soon as Eastern Washington got into the flow of the regular drills Friday at Roos Field – the start of a rare late winter/spring Football Championship Subdivision season delayed by the coronavirus – it was business as usual.
EWU begins its truncated six-game schedule Feb. 27 at Idaho at the Kibbie Dome in pursuit of a 16-team national playoff that begins in April.
The Eagles, ranked No. 18 in a STATS FCS preseason poll released in the fall, feel more ahead than behind, considering the 14-month hiatus.
“It was the best first day of practice I’ve ever been a part of,” All-Big Sky offensive tackle Tristen Taylor said. “Players were ready.”
Fourth-year head coach Aaron Best agreed.
“It was head and shoulders above any Day 1 practice we had in August,” Best said.
Sixth-year senior linebacker Jack Sendelbach was just happy to be playing after the long waiting game.
“When (practice) started, it did feel weird,” Sendelbach said. “You typically start the season with warm weather and end in cold. Now it’s the opposite.
“Guys are just happy to be playing again. The other stuff doesn’t really matter.”
While many Big Sky programs participated in padded fall practices despite not playing games, the Eagles were among the few programs in the conference that didn’t, due to local restrictions and testing measures.
For months, EWU regularly had position group practices wearing only helmets and workout and film sessions.
EWU, which returns several starters on offense and defense, including preseason Big Sky offensive MVP quarterback Eric Barriere, used its time wisely, according to Best.
“We had to get pretty creative to introduce what we were allowed to do,” Best said.
Now the Eagles are gearing up to chase Big Sky title that will likely come with an asterisk.
Montana, Montana State, Portland State, Sacramento State and Northern Colorado each opted out of the season, joining more than two-dozen FCS programs around the country that elected to wait until the fall.
“We’d like to play those teams, but it is what it is,” Sendelbach said. “We’re excited to have six games and still play five good teams (EWU plays Idaho twice).”
Taylor, a 6-foot-6, 325-pounder and sixth-year senior, is perplexed by the teams that opted out.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Taylor said of EWU’s schedule. “But if you want to compete, then compete. How would you not take a chance to play football?”
No matter who the Eagles play, there won’t be many – if any – fans in stadiums.
Big Sky schools will decide on an individual basis how many fans are allowed into their stadiums, adhering to their respective state and local ordinances.
Spokane County is in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan due an uptick in coronavirus cases. It was in Phase 2 when EWU’s schedule was released in November.
“It would be just like yesterday’s practice with nobody in the stands,” Best said “There would be a direct parallel to practice and a game on Saturday at Roos Field.”
Two coaches resign: Veteran defensive line coach Brian Strandley and linebackers coach Josh Fetter resigned “to pursue other opportunities,” Best said.
Strandley’s Twitter bio still lists EWU football. Fetter has a blank Twitter bio.
Strandley joined the staff in 2012, and Fetter was hired in 2011. They were teammates at Idaho in the early 1990s.
Former EWU linebacker Ketner Kupp, who graduated in 2018 before a brief stint with the Los Angeles Rams, has replaced Fetter.
Best will seek Strandley’s replacement in the coming weeks. Defensive coordinator Eti Ena is coaching the defensive line.
Ena, offensive line coach Jase Butorac, running backs coach Kevin Maurice and special teams coach Heath Pulver are the remaining assistants from Best’s first staff in 2017.
EWU adds five more: EWU added 17 recruits in December’s early signing period.
The Eagles welcomed five more players on National Letter of Intent Day – two scholarship athletes and three preferred walk-ons – including Central Valley High senior Dane Anderson, a 6-6, 245-pound offensive tackle who agreed to a preferred walk-on spot. He is the son of former Eastern Illinois All-American center Chris Anderson.
Best, a former offensive line coach, likes the upside of Anderson, who played safety and receiver before hitting a major growth spurt heading into his junior season in 2019.
“He’s a Washington product and comes from great football bloodlines,” Best said.
Anderson, who also plays basketball at CV, received interest from Carroll College, Central Washington, Linfield and Whitworth before EWU offered.
“I took (the offer) immediately,” said Anderson, who hopes to play a senior football season that has been delayed for six months due to state restrictions. “I wanted to play at the highest level possible. EWU is a great school and just 35 minutes from my house.”
EWU also signed two scholarship athletes in offensive lineman Dean Abdullah (Antelope, California), and linebacker Shane Aleaga (Kennedy Catholic of Burien, Washington).
Defensive end Gabriel Johnson (Bothell High School) and offensive lineman Bailey Price (Woodinville High School) are the other two preferred walk-ons, both from Washington.
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