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Sports >  EWU football

2021 football preview: ‘Preseason’ in rearview mirror, Eastern Washington football focused on championship goals

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Despite all the protocols and hurdles required to play a spring season, Eastern Washington’s football players said it was worth it.

It was better than spring practices. And it was a great tune-up for the fall season, which begins with a game against Football Bowl Subdivision opponent UNLV.

“With the COVID year, and just having a lot of people come back, (those seven) games,” sophomore cornerback Tre Weed said, “it was just like a preseason for this season.”

Through that lens, the Eagles see a year with potential not just to win the Big Sky but to also a national championship, something they last did in 2010.

They have arguably the best player at the most important position in the game with senior Eric Barriere at quarterback. Whether they have the defense to support him remains perhaps the biggest question heading into the season.

Key pieces

Eric Barriere, QB: The scrambler extraordinaire did a lot less scrambling last spring, when he averaged 20.6 rushing yards per game, less than half of the 46.5 he averaged in 2019. But he also threw for 39 more yards per game last season than the one previous, and he remains a dual threat for opposing defenses to stop.

Talolo Limu-Jones, WR: The senior finished fourth nationally last year in receiving yards per game (108.4) and was a first-team All-Big Sky selection. In a veteran group of receivers, Limu-Jones still stands out. He also recognizes his role as a leader on the team.

“Just to better the younger guys that are around me,” he said of his goals this season, “because whether I like it or not, they’re gonna follow what I do. I’mma lead whether I wanna lead or if I don’t wanna lead.”

Jusstis Warren, DE: Warren started the first game last spring but missed the rest of the season, and without him the Eagles struggled to consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks or stop the run effectively. Eastern had 13 total sacks and gave up the seventh-most rushing yards per game (195.7) among the eight teams that attempted a full, partial spring season.

Not that Warren necessarily would have compensated for that all by himself, but the University of Washington transfer will no doubt be counted on to improve the defense overall.

Jack Sendelbach, LB: With 39 games played in his five seasons at Eastern, Sendelbach played just three games last spring but certainly was a force in them. He had 33 tackles in those three games and will help lead a defense this year looking to improve its defense overall, particularly its tackling.

Getting healthy, too, would certainly help improve a defense that dealt with injuries at every level last season. Sendelbach’s return this season is emblematic of that, and the play of those who missed parts of the spring will be key for the Eagles.

Filling in the blanks

Running back: Without returning starter Tamarick Pierce for the time being, the Eagles will rely on senior Dennis Merritt and then a stable of unproven college running backs to help balance out the offense.

Merritt, who has 861 career rushing yards on just 143 attempts, is also a pass-catching threat out of the backfield and the likely starter. But throughout camp, coach Aaron Best praised the other backs, specifically true freshmen Tuna Altahir and Davante Smith, who led the team in rushing during two scrimmages.

Penalties: Eastern struggled with penalties last spring, when it averaged 6.2 per game for an average of 69.1 yards. Penalties were an issue in 2019 as well, when the Eagles racked up 940 penalty yards in 12 games, the highest total and average among the Big Sky’s 13 teams.

Best emphasized penalties during the team’s two scrimmages and was happier with their progress after the second from the first.

“They were less mental mistakes (in scrimmage No. 2), penalty-wise, and more physical,” he said. “We can live with the physical ones. Mental ones, the ones in your control, are the ones you wanna stay away from.”

Depth: Eastern returns starters at every position, something that Best noted during preseason doesn’t necessarily equate to being better. But after the defense’s struggles late last season in stopping the run, the Eagles could surely use capable backups to cycle in as necessary.

Same on offense, where the Eagles were much healthier: Just six offensive linemen started games last spring, and the receiving corps largely remained on the field as well. If that changes, the Eagles’ younger players could get opportunities to solidify spots in 2022’s starting lineup.

Solving the puzzle

The Eagles’ nonconference schedule presents them with three opponents from different levels of football, and it’s feasible Eastern wins all of them. UNLV, though an FBS team, was 0-6 last spring, and the Eagles are a veteran FCS team with a history of playing well – if not often winning – in such matchups.

They then host Division II Central Washington, a talented program at its level, followed by a game at Western Illinois, which went 1-5 last spring in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and 1-11 the year before.

Then the Eagles will begin a Big Sky schedule that pits them against all their major rivals in Cheney and sends them on the road to play Southern Utah, Northern Colorado, UC Davis and Portland State on the road.

Third in the preseason conference polls, the Eagles are certainly expected to reach the FCS playoffs and to compete for a conference title. If they can win three of their four home games, against Montana, Idaho, Weber State and Montana State, then odds are good they’ll claim at least a share of a Big Sky championship.

If the running game provides balance to Eric Barriere and the receivers, and if the defense can improve to be middle of the pack against the run, the Eagles will be a formidable force come playoffs.

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