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Eastern Washington University Football

‘We’ll collect ourselves’: Eastern Washington enters offseason with need to get bigger, some stability at quarterback

Eastern Washington running back Tuna Altahir, center, and quarterback Kekoa Visperas celebrate a touchdown during the first half against Weber State on Oct. 21 in Cheney.  (James Snook/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

College football rosters around the country are entering into the great churning season, and Eastern Washington’s is no exception.

While the Eagles officially honored 12 outgoing seniors before Saturday’s season-ending 49-42 loss to Northern Arizona, there will be plenty more movement in the coming months. Players may transfer out. Some seniors may decide they are done after all.

“Some of those decisions are awesome, to see those guys come back,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of the seniors. “But there will be some guys that maybe didn’t walk today that don’t come back for whatever reason.

“We’ll collect ourselves. Come January, we’ll have a pretty good idea to know who we’re going forward with collectively.”

That will include new recruits, both freshmen and transfers, as the Eagles look to improve their roster following a 4-7 season.

“We’ve got to get bigger,” Best said. “That’s going to be a very big push, a very high standard this offseason, because we got pushed around too much this year.”

Best received a vote of confidence from EWU Athletics Director Tim Collins this week. Collins said Best would remain as coach, but he also said he expects continued improvement next year.

The roster is poised to do that, in all three phases. Here’s a look at those three phases through the lenses of what went well this season and what questions remain heading into 2024.

Offense The takeaway: Visperas can play

Redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas, an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection this week, led the Big Sky in passing yards (2,754), touchdowns (19) and completion percentage (66%). Visperas also ran more toward the end of the season, including a season-high 60 yards against Northern Arizona. Juniors Michael Wortham (269 rushing yards and five scores) and Jared Taylor (219 rushing yards in four games, allowing him to redshirt) provide depth and versatility. By the end of the season, this offense was moving the ball through the air consistently. Top targets Efton Chism III – a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection – and Nolan Ulm are expected back for their senior years, and Eastern has plenty of talent behind them, including sophomore-to-be Miles Williams.

The question: Can the team deepen its running game?

Relying on Wortham and Taylor to run the ball gave the Eagles a numbers advantage when they ran as the sole quarterback on the field. The tandem of running backs Tuna Altahir and Justice Jackson worked when both were available. But in the two games Jackson did not play, the Eagles didn’t give a handoff to another running back, which says something about the level of readiness of the team’s third running back, whomever that might be.

Defense The takeaway: Many freshmen got meaningful reps

Up front and in the back of the defense, freshmen played significant minutes on the Eagles defense. By year’s end, true freshman Derek Ganter Jr. was starting at safety next to redshirt sophomore Kentrell Williams Jr. All season, five freshmen – Ben Voigtlaender, Jaden Radke, Justis La’ulu, Isaiah Perez and Jirah Leaupepetele – cycled in along the defensive line, collecting valuable experience few normally get in this program. Linebackers Jaren Banks, Adam Cohen and Ben Allen played all 11 games and anchored the middle of the defense. Cornerback Marlon Jones Jr. was named a first-team All-Big Sky selection. The problem was, all of them played on a defense that allowed the eighth-most points per game in the FCS and just twice in conference play held a Big Sky team to fewer than 40 points.

The question: Can they find meaningful help in the transfer portal?

As much as the Eagles will lean on improvement from their freshmen class, which internally was touted as a strong group, Eastern would undoubtedly benefit from an experienced pass rusher to replace team sacks leader Da’Marcus Johnson (who had 5.5) and more linebackers to provide leadership in the middle of the defense, with Allen and Banks out of eligibility. Even a defensive improvement to the middle of the Big Sky would likely be enough to get this team back to the playoffs, but it cannot rely on winning games in the 40-point range again next season.

Special teams The takeaway: Wortham is a game-changer

Again and again all season teammates called the junior quarterback and returner Wortham someone who could alter a game with a single play, any time he touched the ball. Wortham, named second-team All-Big Sky, finished the year with 736 kickoff return yards, the most in the entire FCS (his average, 28.3, ranked sixth). He did all that without breaking one for a touchdown, though he came close with an 86-yard return and another that was called back by a penalty. The Eagles improved elsewhere, too, up to sixth in the Big Sky in kickoff coverage and tied for first in made field goals (with 14).

The question: How well can they replace Kokich?

Nick Kokich handled punting duties for most of the past five years and will hand off duties to someone else, presumably either freshman Brady Peterson or Brandon Smith. Also, for the second year in a row the Eagles ranked last in the conference in punt return yards with 49 on 10 returns – and that was an improvement over last season.