Eastern Washington typically aims for January football, but not like this.
The Football Championship Subdivision title game in Frisco, Texas, was initially slated for kickoff earlier this month, but the coronavirus pandemic caused a near six-month delay of a truncated FCS season.
EWU began practice Friday at Roos Field, prepping for a six-game late winter/spring season that begins Feb. 27 at Idaho in the Kibbie Dome.
The circumstances are strange, but the atmosphere is familiar.
Eric Barriere – the Big Sky Conference’s preseason offensive MVP – fired passes to a series of tall, experienced receivers.
Fourth-year Eagles head coach Aaron Best and his assistants barked out orders through their mandated masks.
Redshirt junior linebacker Chris Ojoh sought contact wherever he could.
The Eagles will navigate coronavirus protocols, a lack of fans and a conference without Montana, Montana State, Sacramento State, Portland State and Northern Colorado, which all opted out of a season that ends with a 16-team playoff and May 15 national title game.
More than 30 FCS programs have opted out, but EWU, ranked No. 18 in the STATS preseason poll released in August, is forging ahead.
Here are five things to watch as the Eagles begin their preseason camp.
Will Barriere hit the ground running?: It’s simple: Eastern Washington will go as far as its dynamic fifth-year senior quarterback takes it.
Barriere put up gaudy numbers as a junior in 2019, completing 258 of 438 passes for 3,712 yards and 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. With his feet, he totaled 558 yards and eight touchdowns on 119 carries.
But Barriere also had game-changing lulls in losses to Jacksonville State, Idaho, Sacramento State and Montana in the Eagles’ 7-5 season, when EWU missed the playoffs for the second time in Best’s first three years.
Now that Barriere has had two years to work with offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, adhere to his system and extra time to work on mechanics that improved in 2019, will it lead to a noticeable upgrade this spring?
Barriere, who hasn’t thrown a pass in a game or competitive scrimmage since the Eagles beat Portland State 53-46 on Nov. 23, 2019, has three experienced targets in All-Big Sky senior Andrew Boston, Talolo Limu-Jones, and Johnny Edwards (combined for 106 catches, 1,860 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019) and a veteran backfield to work with.
Sixth-year seniors lead the way: They should already be out of school and into the workforce, but injuries and a devotion to football still have a series of sixth-year seniors on Eastern Washington’s roster.
They’re good ones, too.
All-Big Sky Conference tackle Tristen Taylor; team captain and three-year starting linebacker Jack Sendelbach; experienced, proven running back Dennis Merritt; and defensive end and Washington transfer Jusstis Warren are back.
Who will emerge as the vocal team leaders? EWU had plenty in its 2018 run to the national title game.
Since no one loses a year of eligibility for playing this short season, will they return for a seventh year in the fall?
Depth at linebacker: When Ojoh went down with an early injury in 2019 that forced the hard-hitting All-Big Sky talent to redshirt just before midseason, it hurt EWU’s defense mightily.
Sendelbach also battled his share of injuries, and when he and Ojoh were both off the field, teams took advantage of their absence.
But Ojoh and Sendelbach and the addition of former Idaho starter and ex-Cheney High standout Ty Graham is a boost. Graham redshirted in 2019 due to transfer rules.
With these three talented, experienced linebackers, EWU, which often employs a 4-2 defense, may tinker with a 4-3 with a new position coach.
Nine-year EWU linebackers coach Josh Fetter recently resigned.
Former EWU standout linebacker Ketner Kupp, who initially joined the staff as a defensive analyst last year, was coaching linebackers on Friday.
New-look fronts: Both of the Eagles’ offensive and defensive lines will look dramatically different than they did in their previous season.
EWU’s offensive line lost four of its five starters – one was an All-American and two were All-Big Sky before graduating – but return its strongest body with the most NFL potential in the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Taylor.
EWU’s defensive line, which had trouble pressing quarterbacks in 2019, will be completely retooled after graduating two starters and losing its best interior defensive lineman, Keith Moore, to the NCAA transfer portal.
Mitchell Johnson returns as a starting defensive end and Warren will likely occupy the opposite edge.
These aren’t regular true freshmen: If the pandemic provided silver lining, it’s that EWU’s 2020 recruiting class – one of the best in program history, according to recruiting sites – got more time to acclimate to their rigors of college football.
Instead of starting in August, they got six more months to bulk and tune up their bodies, absorb film and schemes and understand the grind of Division I football.
So will a talented true freshman like receiver Efton Chism III see more reps this spring, considering it won’t count against his eligibility?
Time will tell.
Correction: EWU running back and team captain Tamarick Pierce was incorrectly listed as a sixth-year senior in a previous version of this story. He is a fifth-year senior.
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