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Eastern Washington University Football

2022 football preview: Eastern Washington faces some rough dates on the road without its longtime lead frontman

Pictured: Sophomore receiver Efton Chism III caught 80 passes for 735 yards last season.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review; Staff photo illustration)
By Dan Thompson For The Spoksman-Review

It has never been easier for a college football player to switch programs, yet Eastern Washington has experienced very little turnover in that regard the last two seasons since the NCAA loosened its transfer rules.

For the most part, Eastern has continued to heavily recruit high school students and develop them, creating an atmosphere that players appreciate, defensive end and team captain Mitchell Johnson said.

“This is just an extremely special place. I wouldn’t play a sixth year here if I didn’t love it here,” Johnson said midway through preseason camp. “(I love) the coaches, the players, the tradition here.”

The Eagles’ tradition is a rich one, with 12 playoff appearances since 2004, including a national title in 2010. But they play in a strong Big Sky Conference and enter the season with a quarterback who is, at least in game action, unproven outside the program.

Side A (offense): Senior Gunner Talkington spent the last few years backing up Eric Barriere, but he will get his chance to continue the history of strong quarterback play for the Eagles. “I’ve been his roommate for a long time,” said sixth-year tight end Dylan Ingram. “I have a lot of respect for him. … He’s been patient, he’s waited, but he’s also put in the work behind the scenes, and I think that’s definitely showing up right now. I’m really excited to see what he can do.” He’ll be throwing to a group of receivers led by junior Freddie Roberson and sophomore Efton Chism III, a preseason All-Conference selection. The Eagles look to have plenty of options at running back, and while their offensive line has three new starters this year, that has long been a position Eastern has developed well.

Side B (defense): The Eagles broke from their mold a bit defensively this year by adding five transfers to their back seven, including a trio of linebackers (Jaren Banks from Rice, Sherwin King Jr. from Fresno State, and Derek Tommasini from Idaho) and a pair of former Washington State defensive backs (sophomores Alphonse Oywak and Zane Thornton). The linebackers add significant depth and will likely see more game action early on than the defensive backs, who already had a strong core. Senior captain and safety Anthany Smith leads an experienced secondary that helped the team finish fifth in the Big Sky a year ago in pass defense. Preseason All-Conference selection Joshua Jerome leads a defensive line corps that rotates in eight or nine players.

Extras (special teams): Junior kicker Seth Harrison will look to bounce back after battling injuries last season, when he appeared in only seven games and made 6 of 12 field-goal attempts. In his first two seasons, including the COVID spring, Harrison made 18 of 21 such kicks. Punter Nick Kokich, a junior, will try to improve his play after the Eagles had the worst punt average (39.4 yards) in the Big Sky last season. Last season the Eagles were not explosive in the return game, but Chism returns as the team’s primary punt and kickoff returner.

Surprise hits: Wide receiver Nolan Ulm had just eight receptions last season, but he had a big spring game and has looked good in fall scrimmages, too, as a sophomore. Junior cornerback Demetrius Crosby Jr. came on strong last season and finished with a team-high 11 pass breakups despite starting just two games.

Producer: Aaron Best has been around the program for 26 years, and since he became head coach in 2017 the team is 41-17 with three playoff appearances in five seasons. In each of his seasons, including the COVID-shortened spring season, the Eagles have won at least five conference games. Doing so again this year would be a great testament to the work of Best and the staff, considering the difficult schedule they seem to have in front of them.

Album review: Eastern should be improved on defense, and Best vowed to address the special teams, which struggled last year. Offensively, the Eagles should still be able to move the ball, even if they are unlikely to match their record-setting numbers from last year. Expect more close games in the 20s and 30s and an incredibly important game Nov. 12 at Montana.

Prediction: 6-5