In what might be the final “return to normal” milestone in the pandemic’s wake, Eastern Washington will hold spring practices – rather than playing spring games – this week in Cheney.
The Eagles open their slate on Tuesday with the first of 13 practices, plus a scrimmage on April 23 and the Red-White Game on April 30.
“Spring is (when) you go back to the basics,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said on Thursday. “You hammer out the fundamentals of what you feel is best for your three phases of offense, defense and special teams.”
It is also a time to see younger players emerge, Best said, potentially as key contributors heading into next season. Eastern opens the 2022 schedule at home against Tennessee State on Sept. 3.
“The other thing is trying to find those young guys who haven’t had a ton of reps,” Best said, “and (identifying) who those guys are going to be going into August (practices). It’s always fun to find four, five guys (like that).”
The 2022 season will be Best’s sixth as Eagles head coach, and in each of the previous five Eastern has finished with a winning record. That includes three postseason appearances and a loss in the FCS title game after the 2018 season. Last year Eastern went 10-3, losing to Montana in the second round of the playoffs.
In many places, the Eagles will be led by new or emerging coaches and players this season, perhaps none more obvious than at quarterback. Here are three questions about the Eagles as they open spring practices.
1. Is Gunner Talkington going to start at QB this fall?
While Eric Barriere is expected back in Cheney for the Eagles’ pro day on Wednesday, the record-setting quarterback won’t be playing for Eastern in the fall. That leaves the Eagles looking for a new starting quarterback.
Senior Gunner Talkington will begin spring as the No. 1, Best said, but each of the five on the roster will get reps. The others include junior Ryan Kelley, sophomore Simon Burkett and redshirt freshmen Trey Turner and Kekoa Visperas.
After he took over as starter in the middle of the 2018 season, Barriere was the undisputed leader at the position, and ultimately the entire team. He set a number of program passing records and won the Walter Payton Award following last season as the top offensive player in the FCS.
Best said he is interested to see how much those other quarterbacks grew while waiting behind – and learning from – Barriere.
“Now the door is wide open,” Best said.
But Best said he isn’t going to rush the process of deciding on a starting quarterback. For now, he just wants to see the quarterbacks compete, and he didn’t pin down when the team would pick the Sept. 3 starter. It might not be until fall, Best said.
“We’re not going to force the decision if we feel it’s not the best decision,” he said.
Of the five, Talkington has the most extensive college experience, completing 32 of 64 career attempts for five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has one career start, against Cal Poly on March 27 last spring season, in which he threw two of those touchdowns.
Kelley transferred to Eastern from Arizona State last summer. The other three joined Eastern out of high school but have yet to appear in a game for the Eagles.
2. Who will emerge at linebacker?
Of the 15 letter winners who graduated from the program, three of them were the team’s starting linebackers: Jack Sendelbach, Ty Graham and Cale Lindsay.
Primary backup Jusstis Warren, a grad transfer last fall, is now gone as well. Nevada grad transfer Lamin Touray – who was part of Eastern’s December recruiting class – is not on the Eagles’ spring roster, either.
That leaves the Eagles with seven returning players at the position but little experience beyond that of Ahmani Williams, who played in nine games – including one start – last fall and made 10 tackles.
3. How will the team adjust to two new coordinators?
Jim Chapin was hired in the offseason as the offensive coordinator and brings four years of experience at the same position at Division II University of Sioux Falls. His most recent offense averaged 412.8 yards per game, seventh best in the 14-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
But what Chapin’s offense did particularly well was run the ball, averaging 217.6 yards on the ground at an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Both were best in the NSIC.
Eastern will continue to throw the ball, Best said: The Eagles won’t go away from what has made them productive for two decades.
But Best said he would like to see the team improve its per-carry average running the ball. Last season Eastern gained 4.2 yards per rush, sixth most in the Big Sky Conference.
The Eagles promoted Jeff Copp to the defensive coordinator position this offseason to replace Eti Ena, who is now the defensive line coach at Hawaii. Copp was a co-defensive coordinator previously, at Florida International, and has also coached positions at all three tiers of the defense. The past two seasons he coached Eastern’s defensive tackles.
“He’s done it, and I thought that gave us the best ability to be our best in the fall of 2022,” Best said of promoting Copp, who has coached college football for 20 seasons.
Last season, Eastern’s defense ranked sixth in the Big Sky in total yards allowed per game (383.2) and in scoring average (27.8).
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