Before gathering with his teammates for Eastern Washington’s first official preseason practice on Saturday morning, Efton Chism III noted the seeming lack of star power across the Eagles’ roster.
No All-America selections. No reigning all-conference players. Not a lot of the individual accolades that characterized last year’s 10-3 squad.
“This year,” the sophomore receiver said, “it feels different.”
But “different” in this case doesn’t equate to worse in Chism’s estimation.
“We’re more invested about the team this year than last year,” he said. “We were really good last year, don’t get me wrong. We had some of the best players in the country. But I think this year it’s not accolades and stats. It’s more the brotherhood I feel in the locker room.”
And that, the preseason all-conference receiver said, will hopefully transfer to the football field and help this team get farther than it did a year ago, when Eastern lost in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and finished seventh in the final FCS Stats poll.
Eastern – ranked 15th in the preseason FCS Stats poll – is looking to replace six offensive starters, including two-time Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year Eric Barriere as well as a pair of first-team all-conference players in receiver Talolo Limu-Jones and left tackle Tristen Taylor. They also need to settle on a new set of starting linebackers.
More generally, sixth-year Eagles head coach Aaron Best said he wants to see where the team is in relation to when it last convened last spring – and also how players’ conditioning holds up after a few more practices.
“Get back to me in eight or 10 days,” Best said. “We want to see how guys perform when they’re not 100% . Those are usually the guys we can count on on third or fourth down.”
To fill in its rotations at all positions, the Eagles are relying on their veterans to lead and for their younger players to seize their opportunities.
“Going into fall camp we need a lot of young guys to step up,” said junior defensive lineman Joshua Jerome, the team’s other preseason all-conference selection. “There are a lot of roles that need to be filled, especially at linebacker on the defensive side, or offensive linemen Tristen Taylor, those are big losses. But (those are) opportunities for guys to step up.”
Best is looking forward to seeing this class of seniors get their chance to really lead after watching some sixth-year and even seventh-year players do so last season.
“The guys who took over for the senior class that left have been yearning to lead,” Best said. “They led all spring. They led all summer. And I’m excited to see them lead this fall for their first real opportunity when they’re keeping score.”
“It’s always fun to navigate what this team is gonna be about,” Best said, “what our identity is gonna be and what we intend to become.”
When discussing the team’s five quarterbacks, Best remained consistent in what he said going back to the end of spring practices: Gunner Talkington is the No. 1 as of now.
He amplified that stance Saturday morning and also pointed out the goal for the quarterbacks is not to duplicate the record-breaking numbers of their predecessor.
“Trust is a big deal. Timing is a big deal, especially on the offensive side of things,” Best said. “We’re not looking to match (Barriere’s) stats. Gunner’s not going to do that if he’s the guy in one year. We’re not asking him to do that. We’re asking him to be the best version of Gunner Talkington that he can be. Keep the ball without turning the ball over. Correct reads and do those things. Don’t be conservative. Still be aggressive. Be you. But ‘you’ is Gunner, and ‘he’ is Eric (Barriere).”
Best also pointed out that while there is a need to replace three seniors from their offensive line rotation last season in Taylor, Matt Shook and Conner Crist – a trio that had a combined 92 career starts, including a school-record 60 from Taylor – doing so has long been a strength of the program.
“For the last 30 years we’ve been the best offensive line in the Big Sky Conference. Not the last three years. The last 30 years,” said Best, who has been a player or coach in the program the last 26. “You can’t be lucky that long. You’ve done it right.
“You’ve got to tweak some things, but the foundation we’ve laid well before my time here has stood the test of time, and for 30 years, you look at all-league and all-Americans, there’s more Eagles than any other logo in this conference at those spots. We take a lot of pride in that. We’re not going to rest.”
Eastern is scheduled to scrimmage twice this month, on Aug. 19 and 26, at Roos Field in Cheney.
The Eagles will open their season at home, on Sept. 3, against Tennessee State.
“There’s definitely that piece where we’re less than a month out of game day,” Chism said, “but we’ve got to take it as a process and (take) little steps first, because practice No. 1 is today. Little steps every day.”
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