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Sports >  EWU football

Gunner Talkington front-runner to become Eastern Washington’s starting quarterback to begin season

Aug. 18, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 18, 2022 at 9:19 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The move onto the Red, as players and coaches refer to Roos Field in Cheney, is symbolically important for the Eastern Washington football team.

“Especially the new guys, getting out there for the first time is pretty special,” sixth-year Eagles tight end Dylan Ingram said Thursday.

“But also it’s that transition into the next part of fall camp, so I think we’re all pretty excited about it and moving a little closer to the first game.”

Thursday was to be the day they made that move for their practices over to the football field on which the Eagles will open their season at home on Sept. 3 against Tennessee State. But with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, Best made the call to stay on the grass practice fields for one more day.

He also shifted the team’s first scrimmage – which is free and open to the public – to 9:45 a.m. Friday so as to avoid competing in the heat of the day on the red turf of Roos Field.

Best pointed out that he is a neutral party at scrimmages, given he is the coach of the entire team, not just the defense, offense or special teams. So, he said, he is looking for three things during the scrimmage: consistency, efficiency and, more than anything else, energy.

“It’ll be the first time on the Red, (and) those guys are excited about it,” Best said.

At quarterback, Gunner Talkington has solidified his hold on the starting job, Best confirmed, though he stopped short of declaring the sixth-year senior the opening day starter. Eastern Washington has not released a depth chart.

“Gunner’s played well. Has played solid. Has kept the ball in the offense’s hands,” Best said of Talkington, who backed up Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year Eric Barriere last season.

Yet Best praised Talkington’s command of the offense and his leadership, and later he pointed out that figuring out which quarterbacks would be the team’s primary and secondary backups is another priority. The scrimmages will play a part in determining that, too.

“Probably in the next four to five days, we’ll look to solidify who the (No.) 1 is, and we’ve got a pretty good idea on that,” Best said of the quarterbacks, “and then, maybe most importantly, who the 2 and the 3 are, who are going to allow us to function at a high level if the 1 isn’t available.”

The other quarterbacks on the roster are senior Ryan Kelley, junior Simon Burkett, sophomore Trey Turner and redshirt freshman Kekoa Visperas. None of those quarterbacks attempted a pass in a game for the Eagles last season.

Another position the Eagles are looking to replace key contributors from last year is at linebacker, where Ty Graham and Jack Sendelbach took nearly all of the snaps last season.

Last season, injuries and inexperience limited the team’s options behind their experienced top four – senior Cale Lindsay and grad transfer Jusstis Warren played significant snaps, too – to the point that not many linebackers even played on special teams.

But during the off-season the Eagles added three transfers at the position – senior Sherwin King Jr. from Fresno State, senior Jaren Banks from Rice, and junior Derek Tommasini from Idaho – to bolster a position group that includes six others who are with the team for at least their second preseason camp.

Best said the position isn’t so much one with questions but rather one that is looking for answers, and that “we’re still seeing who is going to answer.”

Sixth-year defensive lineman Mitchell Johnson said those linebackers have played well in camp.

“There are some really good young linebackers who are stepping up,” Johnson said.

“At first we didn’t have a lot of guys. Now they’re all of a sudden really deep, and they’re looking really good.”

Focus set on special teams

While it may not be on display as prominently in an intrasquad scrimmage setting, Best said that the Eagles have “made some adjustments” to address their special team struggles a year ago.

Last season, among 13 Big Sky teams, the Eagles ranked last in kickoff coverage, 12th in net punting, sixth in field goals made, and then 11th and 12th, respectively, in punt return average and kick return average.

During the COVID-shortened season previous to last, the Eagles were better but didn’t rank higher than sixth in any of those categories.

“We need and have put a premium on playing better special teams,” Best said, pointing out they may use offensive or defensive starters on those units this season.

The Eagles approach the coaching of special teams more as a committee, with various coaches taking ownership over different aspects of it rather than delegating all duties to one coach. The last season they had a dedicated special teams coach was in 2019, when Heath Pulver coordinated them. That season the Eagles ranked in the bottom three among Big Sky teams in kickoffs, punts and the returning of either.

“It starts with us first as coaches, putting guys in positions to make plays,” Best said.

“It’s not a third of the game. It’s about 15% of the game when you’re looking at reps. But, those 15% of reps can turn a game upside down in – or not in – your favor. So we’ve got to do a better job personnel-wise. We’ve got to be more technical. We’ve got to be more physical.

“(But) we won’t know exactly until we start tackling ball carriers on Sept. 3.”

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