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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

‘If he doesn’t touch paint, he’s upset’: FCS touchdown leader Dennis Merritt making the most of final year with Eastern Washington

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Dennis Merritt’s roommates affectionately call him the “old guy,” and in the context of college football players, 25 is a rather advanced age.

It was a series of unique circumstances that convened to keep Merritt around the Eastern Washington football program longer than all but a handful of his teammates.

With a May birthday, Merritt was already 19 when he graduated from Cascade High School in Leavenworth in 2015. Once at Eastern the following fall, he redshirted.

Then, after playing in the shortened 2021 spring season, Merritt took advantage of the NCAA’s pandemic-related universal waiver to play again this fall.

In between came an injury two games into the 2019 season, a year in which had he remained healthy, Merritt would have exhausted his eligibility. But after Merritt broke his leg in a game against Lindenwood, he applied for and received a medical redshirt to continue his college career.

And on Saturday morning at Roos Field, he will start at running back again for the No. 2 Eagles (6-0, 3-0 Big Sky), who host rival Idaho (2-3, 1-1) in a season Merritt could hardly have seen coming before that injury.

“It literally did change my life and my perspective,” Merritt said this week. “It was more of a blessing in disguise.”

In the 30 college games Merritt played in before his injury – which was the first, he said, in an otherwise healthy life – he ran 72 times for 559 yards.

In the 13 games since he recovered, Merritt has 175 carries for 858 yards. This season, he leads the Football Championship Subdivision in touchdowns with 13.

“(Getting to the end zone is) his whole mentality. If he doesn’t touch paint, he’s upset,” said Eagles junior offensive lineman Matt Shook, who is also one of Merritt’s roommates. “A couple times I can remember in the spring (season) where he could’ve bounced one, and he would tell me about it the day after.

“He’s never satisfied. He’s always wanting to get in the paint.”

During his entire career at Eastern, Merritt has been a running back who gains yards in significant chunks. Through 43 games, his 5.7 yards-per-carry average ranks sixth on the Eagles’ all-time list, just behind current, but injured, teammate Tamarick Pierce.

“I just take a lot of pride in being productive and being able to help the offense move the ball,” Merritt said.

Ironically, it was an injury to Pierce that opened the door for Merritt to start this season. Pierce started six of the team’s seven games last spring, racking up a team-high 462 yards on 86 carries. But he hasn’t played yet this fall while he recovers from an undisclosed injury.

“Coming into this season, (Merritt) knew that he was going to have way more opportunities than he had when (Pierce) was healthy,” Shook said, “so he approached it a lot more aggressively.”

Merritt isn’t particularly vocal on the field, Shook said, but he’s determined to get to the NFL.

“That’s been his one goal in life,” Shook said.

Merritt’s 13 touchdowns – two of which he scored on receptions – are three more than any other FCS player has scored this season, and his 773 yards from scrimmage rank fourth nationally.

When he looks at that touchdown number, Merritt said he just sees it as a product of him doing his job in a highly productive offense – indeed, the subdivision’s most productive. He just happens to be the one punching the football into the end zone.

Listed at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Merritt is 35 pounds lighter than Pierce, and the team’s other active ball carriers are slightly taller or heavier than Merritt is.

Yet that hasn’t kept the shifty Merritt from finding the end-zone paint in goal-to-go situations: nine of his touchdowns have come from inside the 5-yard line.

It also hasn’t made him shy away from blocking, either. Shook praised Merritt’s ability to help protect quarterback Eric Barriere, especially against the flurry of blitzes the Montana Grizzlies defense used two weeks ago at Roos Field.

“There are plays we run where he has the option to go out and go for a pass, but he’s in most of that (Montana) game taking shots,” Shook said.

Merritt likes to show off his technique too, Shook said.

“He brags about it all the time,” Shook said. “He’ll tell me. At practice, he’ll show me.”

Now the Eagles head into the back half of their schedule, with five regular-season games remaining. They are in a strong position to reach the playoffs for the second year in a row after missing out on the postseason in 2019.

Going back to his years at Cascade, Merritt said he never lacked confidence in himself.

“I know my strength,” he said. “I know my speed.”

Now, it seems, the rest of the Big Sky knows it, too.

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