Eagles to kickoff spring practice on April 3 - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Eagles to kickoff spring practice on April 3

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington Athletics

There is strength in numbers indeed.
 
A large group of seniors will lead the way when the Eastern Washington University football team opens spring practices on Tuesday, April 3, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
 
As many as 56 returning letterwinners will be on hand this spring and next fall when head coach Aaron Best begins his second season at the helm. The Eagle defense is expected to return eight starters, including letter winners at two other positions with considerable starting experience. Eastern will return nine starters on offense.
 
But best of all, Eastern will be experienced with as many as 28 seniors on the squad. Eastern had only 14 seniors in 2017 and 12 in 2016. Two of last year's seniors, kicker Roldan Alcobendas and cornerback D'londo Tucker, are still in the appeal process to play as sixth-year seniors in 2018 but are part of the anticipated total of 28.
 
"It's unusual and abnormal, but we're okay with it – I like strength in numbers," said Best. "This class is as big as our last two senior classes combined, so it is a different flavor this year."
 
Eastern closed the season 7-4 overall and in a tie for third in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-2 record. It's the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky. The Eagles also secured their record 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years.
 
Despite the continued success, the absence of playing in the postseason has left room for improvement in the eyes of the Eagles.
 
"There are a lot of veterans, and that leads people to think we'll be better. Time will tell," admitted Best. "We've instilled in our team that we're a year older which should result in being bigger, stronger, faster and all those things, but we have to put in the work in the off-season and pre-season to be able to say those are the things we expect to be."
 
The Eagles will spread 15 practices and scrimmages over the course of 26 days. After its opening practice on April 3, Eastern will practice on each Wednesday and Friday from April 4-27, as well as April 9 (Monday), April 16 (Monday) and April 24 (Tuesday). Eastern will scrimmage on April 13 (Friday) and April 21 (Saturday) before the annual Red-White Game takes place on Saturday, April 28 at 2 p.m. at Roos Field and will be televised live regionally by SWX.
 
 
Spring Practice Schedule
 
Practices take place various days through April 28. Subject to change, most practices are scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m. (media interviews April 3, April 11, April 18 and April 24 at approximately 3:05 p.m.). All practices are scheduled to take place at Roos Field. Scrimmages also take place on the red Sprinturf surface at the "Inferno" in Cheney, Wash.
 
April 3 - Practice (no pads), 3:30 p.m.
April 4 - Practice (no pads) , 3:30 p.m.
April 6 – Practice (no contact), 3:30 p.m.
April 7 - Practice, 10:05 a.m.
April 9 – Practice, 3:30 p.m.
April 11 – Practice, 3:30 p.m.
April 13 - Scrimmage, 3 p.m. start/approx. 3:30 p.m., Roos Field
April 16 – Practice (no contact), 3:30 p.m.
April 18 - Practice, 3:30 p.m.
April 20 – Practice (no pads), 3 p.m.
April 21 – Scrimmage, 11 a.m. start/approx. 11:30 a.m. scrimmage, Roos Field
April 24 - Practice, 3:30 p.m.
April 25 – Practice (no contact), 3:30 p.m.
April 27 – Practice (no pads), 3:30 p.m.
April 28 – Red-White Spring Game, 2 p.m., Roos Field (televised live regionally by SWX)

 
Spring Scrimmages
 
Eastern is scheduled to scrimmage on Friday, April 13 at approximately 3:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 21 at approximately 11:30 a.m. at Roos Field. The annual Red-White Game will take place on Saturday, April 28th at 2 p.m. at Roos Field in conjunction with Eagle Week at EWU and the 37th Annual Orland Killin Lobster Dinner, Dance and Auction. The Red-White game will be televised live regionally by SWX.
 
 
37th Annual Killin Dinner/Dance/Auction is April 28 at EWU as Part of "Eagle Week"
 
Tickets are now on sale for the 37th Annual Killin Dinner, Dance and Auction, which is the featured event of "Eagle Week" at Eastern Washington University.
 
The event follows the annual Red-White Spring Football Game on April 28th at 2 p.m. at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. Eastern's women's soccer team, the two-time defending Big Sky Conference Tournament champion and NCAA Tournament participant, will play Central Washington at 1 p.m. that day on the EWU Soccer Field.
 
Tickets are $100 per individual and $700 for a table of eight. More information is available via: http://goeags.com/killin. A registration link on that page may be used to order tickets.
 
Killin takes place at the EWU Sports and Recreation Center. The event starts with a social hour and auction at 4:30 p.m., followed by the dinner (6 p.m.), program/presentations/live auction (7 p.m.) and dancing (8 p.m.).
 
Net proceeds benefit areas of greatest need within Eastern Athletics. The event is named in honor of Orland Killin, who, along with his wife Bernice, helped create the event. Killin was a man immensely dedicated to academics and the integrity of Eastern Washington University, serving as professor, faculty athletic representative and faculty president. He was an Eastern football letter winner in 1941-42.
 
Other events taking place as part of "Eagle Week" will be announced in the coming weeks. There is no admission charged for the Red-White Game.
 
 
 
 

2018 Preseason Team Notes

 
 
Eastern Returns 32 Players With Combined 364 Career Starts
 
Eastern's experience is not questioned, with 32 total players returning with a total of 364 games of starting experience. Both sides of the ball return 182 starts, including 15 on defense and 17 on offense. Of the players lost from the 2017 team, four had at least 20 starts. They collectively had 128 starts, including 98 on defense and 26 on offense.
 
Returning Starts on Defense (182 starts by 15 players): Mitch Fettig 33, Nzuzi Webster 25, Josh Lewis 21, Keenan Williams 19, Cole Karstetter 14, Ketner Kupp 13, Jay-Tee Tiuli 11, Kurt Calhoun 11, ***D'londo Tucker 9, Jonah Jordan 7, Dylan Ledbetter 8, Jack Sendelbach 4, Tysen Prunty 4, Conner Baumann 2 (including 1 as a fullback), Anfernee Gurley 1. ***Still in appeal process with the NCAA to become a sixth-year senior.
 
Returning Starts on Offense (182 starts by 17 players): Tristen Taylor 25, Chris Schlichting 25, Gage Gubrud 23, Spencer Blackburn 22, Matt Meyer 16, Antoine Custer Jr. 16, Nsimba Webster 12, Jack Hunter 12, Zach Eagle 9, Jayce Gilder 6, Terence Grady 4, Kaleb Levao 4 (including 1 as defensive lineman), Jayson Williams 3, Henderson Belk 2, Sam McPherson 1, Johnny Edwards IV 1, Eric Barriere 1.
 
 
Rematches with Cougars & Vandals Highlight 2018 Football Schedule
 
There will be plenty of interest on the Palouse this fall when the Eastern Washington University football team embarks on its 2018 schedule. Highlighted by a Sept. 15 non-conference game at Washington State and an Oct. 27 Big Sky Conference home match-up with Idaho, the Eastern Washington University football team has announced its 2018 schedule. Currently at 10 games, the schedule is considered tentative and an addition of an 11th game is possible. Game times will be announced this summer.
 
Season ticket renewals begin on April 9, with different price points for a four-game home schedule and one if a fifth is added. No billing will take place until the schedule is completely finalized. More information is available at: http://goeags.com/tickets.
 
The game versus the Cougars is a rematch of a 45-42 Eagle upset to open the 2016 season on Sept. 3, 2016. In the first start of his Eagle career, Gage Gubrud had what was then a school-record 551 yards of total offense, passing for 474 yards and five touchdowns, and rushing for another 77 and a game-clinching score.
 
The University of Idaho will join the Big Sky in football in 2018, and EWU will play the Vandals on Oct. 27, 2018, in the first meeting between the two schools since 2012 when Eastern won in Moscow 20-3. The last time the former league rivals met in a Big Sky game was in 1995 when the Vandals prevailed 37-10 and the last time they met in Cheney was 1994.
 
After finishing 5-3 in league play a year ago en route to an overall 7-4 finish, Eastern's eight Big Sky Conference foes this coming season combined for a 45-59 record overall and, including Idaho in the Sun Belt, were 34-48 in league play in 2017. Eastern will play back-to-back games in October versus the 2017 Big Sky co-champions, Southern Utah and Weber State, who were a collective 20-6 overall and 14-2 in the Big Sky.
 
The Eagles will actually play a ninth Big Sky Conference foe when EWU starts a home-and-home series with Northern Arizona. The first meeting will be in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Sept. 8, 2018, and the return game will come two years later in Cheney, Wash., on Sept. 19, 2020. The two teams didn't play in 2017, and NAU finished 7-5 overall and 6-3 in the league.
 
Eastern leads the all-time series against NAU 20-12, with Eastern winning 50-35 in Flagstaff on Sept. 24, 2016, in a meeting between the fourth-ranked Eagles and the 26th-ranked Lumberjacks. Eastern was also ranked fourth when the two teams met on Nov. 7, 2015, in Cheney, but EWU was defeated 52-30 to end its six-game winning streak. The last time EWU and NAU played in a non-conference game came in 1986 – the year before the Eagles joined the league.
 
When Eastern visits Washington State on Sept. 15, Eastern will play a WSU team coming off a 9-4 finish in 2017. The Cougars were 6-3 in the Pac-12 Conference and ended the season with a 42-17 loss to Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl. Eastern lost the previous three meetings versus WSU dating back to 1907, but between 1921 and 1946 had an 8-10 record versus Washington State freshman or junior varsity squads.
 
Eastern opens league play Sept. 22 at home versus Cal Poly (1-10/1-7 Big Sky) on Hall of Fame Day at EWU. The Eagles then go on the road to play at Montana State (5-6/5-3) in Bozeman. Eastern has won the last five meetings versus Cal Poly with a 7-2 all-time record, and are 31-10 all-time versus the Bobcats with a six-game winning streak.
 
The schedule gets significantly tougher when EWU hosts Southern Utah (9-3/7-1) on Oct. 6 and then travels to Ogden, Utah, to play FCS Playoffs semifinalist Weber State (11-3/7-1) on Oct. 13. The Eagles are 6-3 all-time versus the Thunderbirds, but lost 46-28 a year ago in Cedar City, Utah. Weber State defeated EWU the week after that 28-20 in Cheney, to snap EWU's five-game winning streak in the series. Eastern is 19-15 all-time versus the Wildcats.
 
After an open date in the schedule on Oct. 20, Idaho (4-8/3-5 Sun Belt) visits Cheney where the Vandals are a perfect 3-0 against EWU. Eastern hosted Idaho at Albi Stadium in Spokane six times (1999, 1997, 1990, 1988, 1986, 1984) with a pair of wins, and have played in Cheney just three times (1994, 1992, 1942) with no wins. The Eagles trail in the all-time series 15-6, but have won three of the last five meetings.
 
The Eagles close the regular season with two of their last three on the road – Nov. 3 at Northern Colorado (3-7/2-6) and Nov. 17 at Portland State (0-11/0-8) – sandwiched around Senior Day at home against UC Davis (5-6/3-5). The Eagles are 11-1 all-time versus the Bears with a 10-game winning streak, and are a perfect 6-0 versus UC Davis. Eastern is 19-20-1 against Portland State, but have won the last two, five of the last six and seven of the last nine versus the Vikings.
 
The Eagles will play in 2019 at Washington (8/31/19), a team EWU narrowly lost to 59-52 in 2014 and 30-27 in 2011. Eastern also has non-conference road games scheduled at Florida (9/5/20) and Oregon (9/3/22, subject to change), plus home-and-home arrangements with Western Illinois of the Missouri Valley Conference and Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference.
 
 
Eagles Have Impressive 46-8 Big Sky Record Since 0-2 Start in 2011
 
The Eagles have won 46 of their last 54 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. At one point the Eagles had won 44 of 50 league games, and the only Big Sky school which has come close to that in the 55-year history of the league was Montana, which won 50 of 55 games from 1995-2002 and 46 of 51 from 2003-2009.
 
Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 40 of their last 46 versus conference foes, and are 50-8 since the 0-2 start in 2011. Including three wins at the end of the 2009 season, Eastern has a 56-11 record in league games since then.
 
What's perhaps most impressive is Eastern's ability to consistently win on the road. Until losing at Southern Utah last October, the Eagles had won their previous road game versus all 13 other league members, as well a 2012 road victory at Idaho, which will join the league in 2018.
 
 
Eagles Set School Record with 10,000+ Fans Per Game
 
The Eagles set a school record with an average of 10,123 fans per game in 2017 (50,617 in five games), besting the previous record of 9,577 set in five home games in 2015. Eastern's 2016 average attendance was 8,435 (67,477 in eight home games). Eastern had its fifth-most fans in school history against MSU (11,301), No. 8 against Sacramento State (10,917), No. 17 versus North Dakota State (10,231) and No. 23 against Weber State (9,451). Eastern had 8,717 fans at their home finale versus Portland State, ranking 32nd and giving EWU 25 consecutive sell-outs and 37 total in school history (crowds of 8,600 or more).
 
 
Eagles Continue Stretch of Success in FCS Statistics in Passing and Total Offense
 
In EWU's last 14 seasons (2004-2017), EWU has ranked in the top 10 in passing 12 times, total offense on 10 occasions and scoring five times. In school history, EWU has won two FCS titles for total offense (2001, 1997), as well as three passing offense titles (2016, 2015, 2011) and two for scoring offense (2014, 2001).
 
In the 2017 season, Eastern was eighth in FCS in passing (320.5 per game) and fifth in total offense (476.7), and was also 14th in scoring (34.5) and 11th in third down conversions (46.1 percent).
 
Quarterback Gage Gubrud was second in FCS in total offense per game (357.8), and was fourth in passing yards per game (334.2), third in FCS in points responsible for per game (19.4), fourth in completions per game (26.1) and 13th in total passing touchdowns (26). In 2016 he led FCS in both passing and total offense (368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
 
Nic Sblendorio was 13th in FCS with an average of 6.5 catches per game (72 total) and 25th in yards (82.9 per game, total of 912). Nsimba Webster was 36th in receptions (5.4, total of 59) and 68th in yards (63.0, total of 693). Running back Antoine Custer Jr. had 177 yards rushing and three touchdowns in his last game of the season versus Portland State, and finished 42nd in FCS and fifth in the Big Sky with an average of 70.5 yards per game (776 total). His 10 rushing touchdowns ranked him 25th in FCS and third in the league.
 
Gubrud's average of 334.2 passing yards per game is the fourth-best single season performance in school history, and his 357.8 average per game of total offense is fifth. His 32 total touchdowns responsible for (26 passing, five rushing, one receiving) is eighth. Sblendorio's 72 catches ranks 16th, and his average of 6.55 catches per game ranks eighth.
 
 
Special Teams, Including EWU's Kickoff Return Unit, Finish Near Top in FCS Statistics
 
Eastern's kickoff return unit has long been impressive, and in 2017 the Eagles and Dre' Sonte Dorton ranked high in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. In the last 22 seasons (1996-2017), Eastern has returned 38 total kicks – 19 kickoffs and 19 punts -- for touchdowns. In that same span Eastern has allowed only 17. Until North Dakota State had one in the FCS Playoffs in 2010, Eastern had not allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown in more than 10 years (599 total returns).
 
He was injured and missed EWU's final game of the season, but Dorton averaged 27.4 yards on 22 returns to finish ranked ninth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision and ninth in school history. He'll enter his junior season with the fourth-best career average all-time at EWU (26.7). The team was ninth in FCS at 24.3 per return in 2017.
 
Dorton had a 96-yard return for a touchdown at Southern Utah on Oct. 21, accounting for EWU's only points in a span of 35:04 in the 46-28 loss. On his TD, Dorton faked a reverse and then ran down the sideline for the 13th-longest return in school history to help EWU regain a two-possession lead at 21-8. In the fourth quarter, with EWU trailing 32-28, he had a 36-yarder shortened to 14 yards because of a holding penalty. Dorton also had two returns of 51 yards and others of 49 and 38 in 2017.
 
Besides Dorton, Eastern has some other top-notch returners back from the 2016 season. As a true freshman, Antoine Custer Jr. averaged 26.7 yards on 14 kickoff returns with a touchdown, with long returns of 93, 55 and 35 yards. Teammate Nsimba Webster had a 65-yard return against UC Davis, but broke his clavicle in the process. Webster had a 25.3 average per return in 2016, and EWU's 21.7 average as a team that season ranked fourth in the Big Sky and 25th nationally.
 
In other national statistics in 2017, Eastern was 16th in net punting (38.24), allowing just 3.50 yards by opponents on punt returns in 2017 to rank seventh nationally. Punter Jordan Dascalo led the Big Sky and was 14th in FCS in average per punt (42.6). Thanks to a career-long 33-yard return in EWU's final game of the season against Portland State, junior Zach Eagle ranked 31st in FCS with an average of 6.8 yards per punt return.
 
Safety Mitch Fettig averaged 8.4 tackles per game (total of 92) to rank 61st nationally and ninth in the Big Sky. With three fumble recoveries, sophomore Jack Sendelbach ranked ninth in FCS. Senior defensive end Albert Havili was 46th in FCS and fifth in the league in sacks with an average of 0.64 per game (seven total), and the team averaged 2.55 per game (total of 28) to rank 28th in FCS.
 
 
Eagles Now 44-10 on The Red Turf, Including 34-6 in the Regular Season
 
After winning three of five home games in 2017, Eastern is now 44-10 overall at Roos Field since 2010. Eastern has lost just six regular season games at "The Inferno" – 34-6 (85.0 percent), plus are 10-4 in playoff games. The only regular season losses at home for EWU since then are to conference foes Montana State (2011), Portland State (2011 and 2015) and Northern Arizona (2015), as well as North Dakota State and Weber State (2017).
 
The stadium has been known as "Roos Field" since 2010 when a new red synthetic Sprinturf surface made its debut. Eastern finished a perfect 8-0 in its debut season at "The Inferno," including three playoff victories. Eastern has won 81.5 percent of its games since the red turf was installed in 2010 – including a 4-0 record versus rival Montana.
 
The North Dakota State game on Sept. 9, 2017, was the 50th at Roos Field since the red turf surface was installed in 2010. In 2016, Eastern finished 7-1 in the 50th season of football at EWU's current stadium location, which opened in 1967. Eastern has a 157-65 record (70.7 percent) in 222 games at Roos Field (formerly Woodward Field) since 1967, with the Eagles utilizing Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane as the school's main home field from 1983-89.
 
 
Eastern Now 41-0 Since 2010 When Winning the TO Battle
 
In the last 10 seasons (2008-17), the Eagles are now 50-1 when they've won the turnover battle, 22-6 when they've been tied and 20-29 when they've lost (total of 92-36). The last time EWU lost when it won the turnover battle came in the 2009 FCS Playoffs at Stephen F. Austin when EWU had two miscues and forced four in the 44-33 loss. Thus, EWU is 41-0 since 2010 when they've won the turnover battle, 19-5 when they've been tied and 18-22 when they've lost. That's a collective record of 78-27 (74 percent), with 21 of those 27 losses (78 percent) coming in games EWU has lost the turnover battle and 53 percent of EWU's wins coming when they've won the turnover battle (77 percent when including ties).
 
In 2017, EWU was 3-0 when it won the turnover battle, 3-3 when it lost and 1-1 when it was tied. Eastern finished the 2017 season at minus 10 turnovers for the season, ranking EWU 105th out of 123 FCS schools in turnover margin (-0.91 per game), 90th in turnovers lost (23) and 105th in turnovers gained (13).
 
 
Eagles Have Now Won 23 Games Since 2010 When Trailing or Tied in Fourth Quarter
 
Eastern has now won 23 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, including two in the 2017 season, two in 2016 and 2015, one in 2014, two in 2013, six in 2012, two in 2011 and six during EWU's national championship season in 2010
 
Three of the 23 comebacks have been against Montana, including Eagle victories in 2017 (48-41), 2012 (32-26) and 2010 (36-27). Earlier in the 2017 season, No. 11 Eastern trailed 24-6 at halftime but scored 42 points in the second half to stun the Grizzlies. In the second half, Eastern scored on touchdowns on five of its six possessions, and had a dominating 259-68 yardage advantage in the third quarter. After knotting the game at 27 and 34, Eastern took the lead for good on a tie-breaking 3-yard TD pass from Gage Gubrud to Nic Sblendorio with 6:53 left. Eastern expanded it to 48-34 on a 10-yard TD run by Antoine Custer Jr. with 2:12 to play. The defense did its part by recording three key stops in the fourth quarter Gubrud broke his own school record with a 549-yard passing performance, finishing with four touchdowns through the air and one on the ground. His 560 yards of offense were also a record, as he eclipsed his own previous records of 520 passing and 551 total yards. The 549 team passing yards were also a school record, breaking the previous mark of 526 set in 2015 versus Northern Iowa.
 
At UC Davis on Oct. 7, No. 10 Eastern rallied from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter by scoring 21 points in the period and went on to win a heart-stopping 41-38 victory over the Aggies at Davis, Calif. Gubrud engineered scoring drives of 71, 55 and 75 yards in the final quarter, and finished with six touchdown passes and 452 yards passing. He passed 6 yards to Sblendorio for a game-winning TD with 1:37 to play, followed by a missed 49-yard field goal by the Aggies that could have knotted the game. Gubrud passed for 452 yards and six touchdowns in the win.
 
 
Eastern is 25-14 (64 percent) Since 2010 Versus Ranked Opponents
 
Weber State was the second ranked FCS foe Eastern played in the 2017 season, and the first in Big Sky Conference play. Earlier, Eastern lost 40-13 to second-ranked North Dakota State (the Eagles were ranked seventh). Prior to beating EWU 28-20, Weber State was ranked 19th in the STATS Top 25 poll, and 14th by the coaches. Eastern was 11th in both at the time.
 
The Eagles have now played 122 games against ranked teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision since becoming a member of that classification in 1983 (then known as I-AA). Eastern is 54-68 (.443 in those games, including a 17-42 mark (.288) versus top 10 foes. Since 2010, though, the Eagles are 25-14 overall (.641) and 8-7 (.533 versus top 10 teams.
 
Eastern was 6-2 against ranked teams in 2016, having lost to top-ranked North Dakota State by a 50-44 score in overtime and then falling 40-38 to 13th-ranked Youngstown State in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. Eastern defeated Northern Iowa, ranked 10th at the time, by a 34-30 score on Sept. 17, beat No. 25 Northern Arizona 50-35 on Sept. 24, defeated No. 16 Montana 35-16 on Oct. 29, knocked off No. 14 Cal Poly 42-21 on Nov. 5, then beat No. 14 Central Arkansas 31-14 on Dec. 3 and was victorious over No. 12 Richmond 38-0 on Dec. 10. Overall, EWU has faced the No. 1 team in FCS nine times, winning twice (35-31 in 2004 over Southern Illinois in the FCS Playoffs and 30-21 in 2002 over Montana at Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash.
 
 
Eagles Continue November Excellence
 
The month of November has long been a successful month for Eastern, and they continued that in 2017. Since 2004, EWU has lost just seven regular season games in November (Weber State in 2017; NAU, Portland State and Montana in 2015; Sac State and Weber State in 2006; and Cal Poly in 2005), with an overall record of 32-7.
 
In November and beyond since 2004, the Eagles are now 45-15, including a 13-8 record in the FCS Playoffs. Since 2010, Eastern is 30-8 overall in November and beyond, with the lone setbacks coming in 2017 to Weber State; 2016 to Youngstown State in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs; 2015 to Portland State, Montana and Northern Arizona; 2014 to Illinois State in the playoff quarterfinals; 2013 to Towson in the playoff semifinals; and 2012 to Sam Houston State in the playoff semifinals. Until losing to Northern Arizona on Nov. 7, 2015, Eastern had won its last 19 regular season games in November, dating back to a 15-13 loss to Sacramento State on Nov. 1, 2008.
 
 
 

2018 Preseason Player Notes

 
10 of 13 Eagles Selected to 2017 All-Big Sky Team Return, Plus Two From 2016
 
The Eagles had 13 players honored on the All-Big Sky Conference team in 2017, but even more noteworthy is the number 10. That's the number of selections expected to return for the 2018 campaign, as only a trio of seniors were on the list of Eagles selected by the league's head coaches for yearly honors in the Big Sky.
 
Four of six second team selections return, including quarterback Gage Gubrud, who was also one of 25 finalists for the Walter Payton Award presented by STATS to the top offensive player in FCS. The other second team selections back are center Spencer Blackburn, running back Antoine Custer Jr., and kickoff return specialist Dre' Sonte Dorton. Custer also earned honorable mention honors on the sophomore All-America team as chosen by Hero Sports.
 
All six of EWU's third team or honorable mention selections are back, including wide receiver Nsimba Webster, safety Mitch Fettig and special teams standout Anfernee Gurley on the third team. Running back Sam McPherson, cornerback Josh Lewis, and sophomore offensive guard Tristen Taylor received honorable mention and are back.
 
In addition, Jay-Tee Tiuli returns after earning first team All-Big Sky honors in 2016 before having to redshirt in 2017 after an early-season injury. Also on the 2016 All-Big Sky squad was third team cornerback Nzuzi Webster, thus giving EWU 12 players who have previously won all-league accolades. Blackburn also earned second team honors in 2016, and Fettig and Taylor were both honorable mention that season.
 
A first team selection and co-Offensive MVP in 2016, Gubrud was second in FCS in total offense per game (357.8). He was also fourth in passing yards per game (334.2), third in FCS in points responsible for per game (19.4), fourth in completions per game (26.1) and 13th in total passing touchdowns (26). In 2016 he led FCS in both passing and total offense (368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
 
Webster was 36th in receptions (5.4, total of 59) and 68th in yards (63.0, total of 693). Custer had 177 yards rushing and three touchdowns in his last game of the season versus Portland State, and finished 42nd in FCS and fifth in the Big Sky with an average of 70.5 yards per game (776 total). His 10 rushing touchdowns ranked him 25th in FCS and third in the league.
 
Blackburn earned second team honors for the second year in a row, and Taylor received honorable mention for a second time Eastern was eighth in FCS in passing (320.5 per game) and fifth in total offense (476.7) in the 2017 season, and was also 14th in scoring (34.5) and 11th in third down conversions (46.1 percent).
 
Fettig averaged 8.4 tackles per game (total of 92) to rank 61st nationally and ninth in the Big Sky, and also had three passes broken up. Lewis had 52 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions to go along with five other passes broken up.
 
On special teams, Dorton averaged 27.4 yards on 22 returns to finish ranked ninth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision and third in the league. The team was ninth at 24.3 per return, as he had returns of 96 (touchdown), 51, 51, 49 and 38 in 2017.
 
Gurley, who a year prior was leading his high school team (Archbishop Murphy in Everett, Wash.) to the State 2A Championship, closed his debut season with 37 tackles, three passes broken up and two forced fumbles. He was dominant on special teams and played as a backup defensive back. He went on to earn first team Freshman All-America honors from Hero Sports.
 
 
2017 All-Big Sky Selections Returning in 2018
Second Team -- #Quarterback - 8 - Gage Gubrud - 6-2 - 205 - Jr. - 3L* - McMinnville, Ore. (McMinnville HS '14)
Second Team -- Running Back - 28 - Antoine Custer Jr. - 5-9 - 190 - So. - 2L - Berkeley, Calif. (De La Salle '16)
Second Team -- ~Center - 75 - Spencer Blackburn - 6-2 - 285 - Jr. - 2L * - Bellingham, Wash. (Meridian HS '14)
Second Team -- Return Specialist - 87 - Dre' Sonte Dorton - 5-10 - 185 - So. – 1L* - Pasco, Wash. (Chiawana HS '15)
Third Team -- Wide Receiver - 5 - Nsimba Webster - 5-10 - 180 - Jr. - 3L* - Antioch, Calif. (Deer Valley HS '14)
Third Team -- ^Safety - 13 - Mitch Fettig - 6-1 - 200 - Jr. - 3L* - Olympia, Wash. (Olympia HS '14)
Third Team -- Special Teams - 34 - Anfernee Gurley - DB - 5-10 - 180 - Fr. – 1L - Everett, Wash. (Archbishop Murphy HS '17)
Honorable Mention -- ^Offensive Guard - 65 - Tristen Taylor - 6-6 - 315 - So. - 2L * - Stockton, Calif. (Stagg HS '15)
Honorable Mention -- Running Back - 20 - Sam McPherson - 5-10 - 200 - Jr. - 2L - Bothell, Wash. (Bothell 'HS '15)
Honorable Mention -- Cornerback - 1 - Josh Lewis - 6-0 - 190 - Jr. - 2L* - Lakewood, Wash. (Steilacoom HS '14)
#Big Sky MVP & First Team All-Big Sky in 2016. ~Second Team All-Big Sky in 2016. ^Honorable mention All-Big Sky in 2016. *Has used redshirt year.
 
 
 
One Webster on a Roll, Another Ranked Eighth in School History
 
The Webster twins are making their mark in Eastern history through their junior seasons.
 
With 22 passes broken up in his career, senior cornerback Nzuzi Webster enters his senior season ranked eighth in school history. In his 38-game career (25 as a starter), he has 133 total tackles and a pair of interceptions. In the 2017 season, he had 31 tackles and seven passes broken up.
 
His twin brother Nsimba Webster, a senior wide receiver, had a touchdown catch in five-straight games from Sept. 30 to Nov. 4. For the season, he caught 59 passes for 693 yards and five scores, and should eventually approach Eastern's career leaders lists in several categories. In his 29-game career (12 as a starter), he has caught 72 passes for 854 yards and seven touchdowns.
 
The twins are from Antioch, Calif., and were 2014 graduates of Deer Valley High School where they helped the Wolverines to an 11-2 record and semifinal appearance in the 2013 CIF Division I North Coast Section Playoffs. They lost to eventual champion De La Salle 57-27, whose roster included future Eagle Antoine Custer Jr. (who rushed for 1,141 yards and 14 TDs as his team's Sophomore of the Year). Nsimba passed and ran for 50 touchdowns as a senior and Nzuzi contributed greatly on offense, defense and special teams. Former Eagle and current Oakland Raider Taiwan Jones ('07) also attended Deer Valley High School.
 
 
Awaiting Word on His Sixth Year, Roldan Alcobendas Third in Career Kick Scoring Points
 
Kicker Roldan Alcobendas is awaiting official word that he will receive a sixth year to complete four years of eligibility because of injuries that cost him a pair of seasons.
 
In his 29-game career, he has scored 201 points to rank third in school history in points kicking. He missed his first extra point attempt of the game against UC Davis on Oct. 7, 2017, ending his school-record string of consecutive career extra points made at 85. He made 20-of-31 field goals and 141-of-146 extra points in his career. He ranks seventh in school history in both field goal attempts and made, and is No. 2 in extra points made and attempted (the records are 143 makes and 150 attempts).
 
In the 2017 season, he made 46-of-47 extra point attempts and 10-of-14 field goals. He also handled kickoff duties much of the season, and averaged 59.8 yards on 39 kicks in 2017 with seven touchbacks. In his career, he has 107 kickoffs for a 57.4 average (6,143 total yards) with 17 touchbacks.
 
Alcobendas is a 2013 graduate of Camas (Wash.) High School, and had to sit out both the 2013 and 2015 seasons because of knee injuries. He finished the 2016 season 9-of-15 kicking field goals and made 73-of-74 extra points. He made his last 63 extra points in a row in 2016 to shatter the previous season record of 47. His 73 total extra points made in 2016 were one behind the Big Sky Conference record of 74 set by former Eagle Kevin Miller in 2013. He also averaged 54.6 yards on 44 kickoffs with seven touchbacks.
 
Returning to the venue he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2014, Alcobendas made field goals of 48 and 31 yards and had a career-high 11 total points in EWU's 41-17 victory over Montana State in 2016 to earn Big Sky Conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors. His 48-yarder was the best of his career, and equals the 23rd-longest in school history. He also had a 31-yarder blocked and made all five of his extra point attempts to account for 11 of EWU's points. In addition, he averaged 64.0 yards in three kickoffs, including one touchback.
 
 
After 23 Career Starts, Gubrud Already Up To Fourth in EWU Career Passing Yards
 
Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud has played in just 27 career games, but he's still making his mark in a hurry on EWU's career leaders list.
 
He's moved up to No. 4 in school history in career passing yards with 8,568, ranking only behind 10,000-yard passers Matt Nichols (12,616), Vernon Adams Jr. (10,438) and Erik Meyer (10,261). He is also fourth in total offense with 9,441 yards, ranking behind Nichols (13,308), Adams (11,670) and Meyer (10,942). Gubrud is 2,129 passing yards from making it onto the top 10 in Big Sky history, and is only 1,501 from the total offense mark of Meyer which ranks 13th in the 55-year history of the league.
 
After setting three FCS, seven Big Sky marks and 18 school records in the 2016 season, Gubrud now seeks to maintain a pair of career marks. After 27 games in his career (17-6 in 23 games as a starter), he remains the Eastern career leader in passing yards per game (317.3) and total offense per game (349.7), and is second in completion percentage (.651).  He is also fourth in touchdown passes (74), fourth in completions (654) and sixth in attempts (1,005).
 
Gubrud now has a school-record 10 400-yard passing performances in his career, three more than Adams with seven. He has had back-to-back-to-back 400-yard performances on three occasions, and Adams, Jordan West and Matt Nichols are the only other quarterbacks in EWU history to have accomplished that feat two games in a row. Gubrud's 16 300-yard passing performances rank only behind Meyer (17), Nichols (19) and Adams (20).
 
Gubrud owns eight of the top 10 single game total offense performances in school history (1-2-3-4-6-7-8-10), plus the Nos. 14, 20 and 29 performances. He owns nine of the top 19 passing performances (1-2-4-7-13-15-16-18-19), plus Nos. 23, 40 and 45.
 
During Eastern's five-game winning streak from Sept. 16 to Oct. 14 in 2017, Gubrud had 2,071 passing yards (414.2 average per game) while completing 69 percent of his passes. He passed for 19 touchdowns and accounted for another four (three rushing, one receiving). In his best five-game stretch in 2016, he completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,160 yards (432.0 average) and 20 touchdowns in five victories from Sept. 24 to Oct. 29.
 
In addition, he had an impressive string of 222 passes without an interception in 2016, going four full games in 2016 from Sept. 24 to Oct. 22 without a pick. He had what was then a school-record 551 yards of total offense in the first start of his career, a 45-42 season-opening victory over Washington State of the Pac-12 Conference.
 
 
Custer Has Most Rushing Yards for an Eagle in 29 Games, Then Tops It
 
Junior running back Antoine Custer Jr. finished his sophomore season with 776 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, to go along with 21 receptions for 276 yards and two more scores. In his 24-game career (16 as a starter), he has 1,192 yards on the ground, 463 receiving and 499 on kickoff returns for a total of 2,154 all-purpose yards (89.8 per game). His career 23.8 average returning kickoffs is currently 11th in school history.
 
Custer had what was then a career-best 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns in EWU's 31-19 victory over Montana State on Oct. 14, 2017. It eclipsed the 141 he had as a true freshman in 2016 against Idaho State, and were the most for an Eagle in 29 games since Jabari Wilson had 188 versus Montana State early in the 2015 season. Custer then ended the year with a career-high 177-yard effort with three touchdowns on 24 carries against Portland State on Nov. 18, scoring on runs of 6, 28 and 27 yards.
 
As a true freshman in 2016, he finished his debut season with 977 all-purpose yards and a pair of Big Sky Conference Player of the Week accolades for his kickoff returning prowess. He averaged 26.7 yards on 14 kickoff returns with a touchdown. Custer started at running back in six games, including Eastern's opener against Washington State, and scored the first touchdown of the season for the Eagles on a pass from Gage Gubrud.
 
 
Hometown Product Has 31 Tackles in Three Game-Stretch
 
Senior defensive end Keenan Williams finished the 2017 season with 55 tackles to rank fourth on the team and first among EWU defensive linemen. He also had four sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries to go along a fumble recovery. In his 33-game career (19 as a starter), he has 116 tackles with seven sacks.
 
Williams had an October stretch in which he had 31 tackles in three games, including the first two double-figure performances of his career. He finished with nine tackles, a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter and a quarterback hurry in EWU's 31-19 win over Montana State on Oct. 14. His recovery came with 8:52 to play in the game, and the Eagles turned that into a game-clinching 13-play, 78-yard TD drive that took 5:43 off the clock. The hurry for Williams came on a second down play on MSU's last possession of the game, a possession which ended with an interception by EWU's Victor Gamboa with 2:01 remaining.
 
Eastern held the Bobcats to 353 yards of total offense, including 218 rushing and 135 passing. Bobcat quarterback Chris Murray had a 54-yard touchdown run, but finished with only 88 rushing yards and 135 through the air. Thus, outside his long run, he averaged only 4.7 yards per play. Murray, the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016, entered the game with a team-leading 543 yards (108.6 per game to lead the league) and three touchdowns, and had passed for another 646 and eight scores. The Bobcats entered 10th in FCS in rushing, averaging 250.6 yards per game.
 
The performance by Williams – a 2015 graduate of Cheney, Wash., High School -- came after back-to-back weeks in which he had a career highs for tackles with 12 (UC Davis) and 10 (Sacramento State).
 
 
Filling Middle Linebacker Role, Sendelbach Receives Pair of Honors
 
Junior Jack Sendelbach was Eastern's super-sub in 2017, filling in for a starter four times in 2017 and finishing with 49 tackles for the season with two sacks. That gave him a total of 65 tackles in his 24-game career.
 
He earned a pair of Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors after helping lead EWU's sterling defensive effort in a 21-14 victory over North Dakota on Nov. 11, 2017. He was the official Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week, and earned the same honor from College Sports Madness after his double-figure tackle performance against UND. The  2015 graduate of Blanchet High School in Seattle finished with 11 tackles and recovered a key fumble in the win. He was credited with a half-sack, and his fumble recovery came with 13:21 left in the game at the EWU 1-yard line and the Eagles clinging to a 21-7 lead. Five of his tackles came in the second quarter when EWU outscored UND 14-0 and had a dominating 191-29 advantage in total offense.
 
Sendelbach was replacing suspended starting middle linebacker Kurt Calhoun in the lineup, and earlier in the 2017 season had started three games as an injury replacement for Ketner Kupp at strong-side linebacker. With three fumble recoveries in 2017, Sendelbach ranked ninth in FCS.
 
 
Barriere Wins First Start of Career Versus UND
 
Sophomore Eric Barriere was thrown to the fire during his redshirt freshman season when he made the first start of his career against North Dakota on Nov. 11, 2017, and led the Eagles to a 21-14 win. The 2016 graduate of La Habra (Calif.) High School was as a replacement for starter Gage Gubrud, who was serving a one-game team suspension for violation of team rules.
 
Barriere had 185 yards of total offense, had a touchdown pass and scored once on the ground on a fourth down play to end the first half. He completed 13-of-23 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 15 times for 55 yards. He was sacked only once and had no turnovers. He rushed for a pair of first downs, and passed for another eight. Barriere helped Eastern to a turnoverless game, but had to recover his own fumble late in the game that was followed by a key 67-yard punt by Jordan Dascalo that was downed at the UND 3-yard line. Had Barriere not recovered the fumble, UND would have taken over at the EWU 31 trailing just 21-14.
 
By contrast, Vernon Adams Jr. – a former Eagle who Barriere draws comparisons to – had 75 yards passing (7-of-12) and 62 rushing (five carries) in his starting debut in 2012 at Weber State in a 32-26 victory. Adams missed most of the second half with cramping, and rushed for five first downs and passed for four. Before the UND game, Barriere had appeared in three games in 2017 and was 1-of-2 for 13 yards and an interception, all coming against Texas Tech on Sept. 2.
 
 

2018 SEASON OUTLOOK

 
OVERVIEW: Eastern Working Out Kinks After Base Built in 2017
 
It's year two of the Aaron Best regime, and familiarity is no longer an issue. In fact, in 2017 it's entrenched.
 
The Eastern Washington University football program won seven of its last nine games a year ago and will hope to ride momentum and experience into the 2018 season and beyond.
 
In Best's first year as head coach, enough was the same to put the Eagles on the cusp of a postseason playoff berth and the league championship. But this year, with his coaching staff returning intact and 28 seniors leading the way, the sky is the limit.
 
"In the second year of anything, you try to find the kinks in the hose and you work those kinks out," Best explained. "We want to continue to build the base off our first year when we had a new coaching staff and the landscape was different for the players we were coaching. Because '17 was '17 and it's a whole different team in '18.
 
As many as 56 returning letterwinners will be on hand this spring and next fall. Getting denied a 13th NCAA Football Championship Playoff berth by the selection committee has only added fuel to the fire.
 
 "We are working our tails off in the off-season and leadership is already ahead of where it was last year just based on the sheer numbers of veterans we have coming back," he continued. "There are more voices and guys listening. Hopefully it's the details and work in the off-season and pre-season that will help us be successful when we get to our opener in September."
 
There is no shortage of returning experience, with a dozen Eagles back who have earned All-Big Sky Conference honors in the last two seasons. Nine starters are back on offense and eight are back on defense, but a total of 15 defensive players and 17 on offense return with starting experience. Each side of the ball has 182 starts back.
 
"I do know we will be older, but it doesn't necessarily mean we are going to be better," said Best. "We're not going to be better or stronger just because we're a year older. But once you apply another year of experience through this coming September, October and November, then we'll have the entire amount of data to see where we go from there. We're older, and hopefully that makes us wiser, tougher, stronger and hungry based on our outcome last year."
 
The Eagles overcame a rash of injuries to win seven games, and, in some ways, that made the year extremely special for Best. His debut season was even better than those of previous Eagle head coaches Beau Baldwin (6-5), Paul Wulff (6-5) and Mike Kramer (4-7).
 
Eastern secured a school-record 11th-straight winning season and had yet another outstanding Big Sky Conference campaign in 2017. After finishing 6-2, the Eagles have won 46 of their last 54 league games.
 
 "We have experience coming back and the entire coaching staff is intact. So change won't be a factor in why things are the way they are," said Best. "We're also a little salty from finishing 7-4 and having to watch the playoffs from home. I'll be honest, we felt like we earned the opportunity to be in the field of 24. Like our motto says, 'leave no doubt' is a small reminder that in 11 weeks of work if you finish 7-4 you could be watching on TV. That's a taste we don't want in our mouth and aren't used to, so we are out to earn the eighth win and beyond."
 
The Eagles finished in a tie for third in the Big Sky and have finished 5-3 or better in the last 11 seasons. Overall, Eastern has had 20 winning campaigns in the last 22 years. But with nine league titles and a national championship on their resume, the bar is set high for the Eagles. Best will lean on 28 seniors to help get Eastern over that hump.
 
"It's a combination of scholarship players and non-scholarship players, and players we added the past couple of seasons," he explained of EWU's latest senior class that totaled just 14 in 2017 and 12 the year before that. "It's kind of an eclectic bunch with a nucleus of players from our 2014 recruiting class. But that's a lot of seniors and a lot of bodies. When you travel 60, that's conceivably half our team."
 
Nevertheless, Best looks to the rest of the squad to push the seniors and experienced players for repetitions. Eastern will get a first glimpse of 17 freshmen who redshirted last year, plus a talented group of incoming first-year Eagles.
 
"The challenge for any team laden with juniors and seniors is trying to let the young players know that if they play well enough we'll find them reps," he said. "Whether it's on special teams or at a position – or a combination of both – we want them to compete to be a starter even though there is a returning player at their position. Last time I checked, competitors compete. If they are waiting for their turn, they have the wrong mindset. Now that we have a ton of seniors this year, it's not going to play out any differently."
 
 
DEFENSE
 
The credit and blame for turnover margin can go both ways. Regardless, Best wants his team to improve that on both sides of the ball. Eastern is 41-0 since 2010 when winning the turnover battle.
 
"If we get the ball out and take care of it, it's been proven here at this institution that we win," Best said. "We were better late in the season than we were earlier in the year. We started holding onto the ball a little better and we got it out a few more times on defense and special teams. We will continue to drive that home."
 
Eastern finished the 2017 season ranked 105th out of 123 FCS schools in both turnover margin (-0.91 per game) and turnovers gained (13 with six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries). Eastern's 23 giveaways (14 interceptions and nine fumbles) ranked 90th.
 
 "On defense we have to be more stout and get the ball out," Best said. "We only had six interceptions last year, and we're too long in the tooth, savvy and experienced in the back-end not to be able to get more. We need to read routes better, get tips and read the quarterback in order for us to make more plays. We don't want to be just average, we want to be great. We need to be more ball-hawking while the ball is in the air, and we need to tie that into getting more pressures on quarterbacks."
 
Led by senior safety Mitch Fettig, the Eagles feel their secondary is ready for a big year. Starting senior cornerback Josh Lewis and starting senior rover Cole Karstetter are among the total of as many as 11 returning letterwinners at defensive back – four with starting experience. Fettig was a third-team All-Big Sky selection as a junior after earning honorable mention as a sophomore, and Lewis earned honorable mention honors in 2017.
 
Fettig has started a team-best 33 times in his 34-game career, with 231 tackles, five interceptions and 12 passes broken up. In 2017 he averaged 8.4 tackles per game (team-leading total of 92) to rank 61st nationally and ninth in the Big Sky. Lewis has started 21 career games, and has 89 tackles, five interceptions and 11 passes broken up in 36 games as an Eagle. A year ago he had 52 tackles, a team-leading three interceptions and five other PBUs. Karstetter missed most of the 2016 season with a Achilles injury, but has started 14 of the 24 games he's played in his career, with 31 tackles a year ago to give him 80 in his career.
 
At cornerback, senior Nzuzi Webster has 25 games of starting experience, and sixth-year senior D'londo Tucker has nine starts. Tucker is still awaiting word that he has received a sixth-year from the NCAA after having most of one season and all of another wiped out because of injuries. Junior Brandon Montgomery also returns at that position.
 
Webster earned third team All-Big Sky honors in 2016, and has 22 career passes broken up to rank eighth in school history. He has 133 total tackles and a pair of interceptions in 38 career games, with 31 tackles and seven passes broken up in 2017. Tucker was injured in September of 2017 and missed the rest of the year, but has 57 total tackles, three interceptions, a sack and 12 passes broken up in his 35-game career. Montgomery chipped in 15 tackles and four passes broken up in 2017.
 
At safety, junior Tysen Prunty has four games of starting experience and sophomore Anfernee Gurley started one during a magnificent season as a true freshman. Sophomore Calin Criner and junior Dehonta Hayes are also back.
 
In 2017, Prunty ranked fifth on the team in tackles with 52, and also broke-up a pair of passes. Gurley finished with 37 tackles, three PBUs and two forced fumbles while doing much of his damage on special teams en route to earning third team All-Big Sky honors. Criner chipped in 22 tackles and Hayes had six. Sophomore Kedrick Johnson is the 11th returning letterwinner in the secondary, and played in five games in 2017.
 
Six linebackers also return, including senior starters Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun. Kupp has started 13 of the 33 career games he's played, and has 152 career tackles with 2 1/2 sacks after finishing with 66 stops in eight games as a junior. Calhoun has played in 26 career games and has started 11, and has 121 tackles with 3 1/2 sacks in his career. He finished the 2017 season with 73 tackles to rank second on the team, and had 1 1/2 sacks, three passes broken up and two forced fumbles.
 
Juniors Jack Sendelbach and Andrew Katzenberger also return with experience, with Sendelbach owning four starts. Also back is sophomore Chris Ojoh, who played significantly on defense and special teams as a true freshman in 2017, and junior Trevor Davis Jr.
 
Sendelbach has 65 tackles in his 24-game career, and in a victory over North Dakota in 2017 he earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors as a replacement for Calhoun. Sendelbach had 11 tackles in that game and 49 on the season with a pair of sacks, and also had three fumble recoveries in 2017 to rank ninth in FCS.
 
Katzenberger finished with 13 tackles in 2017, and Ojoh had 18. Davis was injured and didn't play in 2017, but lettered in 2016 when he played in 11 games and had 13 tackles.
 
A trio of starters are back on the defensive line, as well as one from 2016. Senior Jay-Tee Tiuli was an injury redshirt in 2017 after starting at nose guard in 2016 and earning first team All-Big Sky honors. He has played in 36 career games (11 as a starter), and has had 77 total tackles with 8 1/2 sacks, three quarterback hurries and two passes deflected. Prior to the 2017 season he earned third team preseason All-America honors from STATS, and first team all-league accolades from College Sports Madness.
 
Tiuli's position was filled in 2017 by Dylan Ledbetter, with senior Jonah Jordan starting six games as an injury replacement at defensive tackle. Now a junior, Ledbetter had eight tackles and a pair of sacks in his starting debut in 2017, and finished the year with 45 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. Jordan had 24 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks as a junior, giving him a total 42 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks in 28 career games (seven as a starter).
 
Senior Keenan Williams started the entire season at defensive end, and is among the total of 10 returning letterwinners along the line. He finished the 2017 season with 55 tackles to rank fourth on the team and first among EWU defensive linemen. He also had four sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries to go along a fumble recovery. In his 33-game career (19 as a starter), he has 116 tackles with seven sacks.
 
Senior ends Conner Baumann and Nick Foerstel are back, as well as junior Darnell Hogan. Junior Jim Townsend was redshirted in 2017 after playing in 2016 as a sophomore and 2015 as a true freshman. Baumann has 54 tackles in 35 career games with a pair of sacks, and Foerstel has 20 stops and two sacks in 23 games as an Eagle. Hogan had eight tackles in 2017 and Townsend had 13 with a sack in 2016.
 
Inside, sophomores Keith Moore and Rudolph Mataia Jr. return. Moore, an imposing 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, had seven tackles in his debut season as an Eagle, and Mataia had 16.
 
Eastern had 28 sacks a year ago in 11 games after finishing with 35 in 14 games in 2016. In both seasons the Eagles averaged 2.5 sacks per game, but the 2016 squad featured Samson Ebukam, who is now with the Los Angeles Rams after having 24 sacks as an Eagle.
 
"We were solid in the sack department even with the loss of Samson, but we can be better," said Best. "And that will help us in the back-end in getting a quarterback uneasy in the pocket and off his mark. We want him to make mistakes so our secondary can feast."
 
Besides turnovers, Eastern also wants to improve upon a defense which ranked 115th overall out of 123 FCS schools with an average of 464.9 yards per game. However, Eastern's red zone defense ranked 34th nationally.
 
"On defense we want to be more consistent," Best said. "Part of that is getting the ball out, but also holding teams in the red zone and between the 20's. We were pretty good in the red zone last year and we need to build on that. But we need to tighten the screws a little bit between the 20 and 20. We can't just rely on our red zone defense – we're all in for stopping teams at the 50."
 
 
OFFENSE

The Eagles were once again potent on offense, ranking fifth in FCS with an average of 476.7 yards per game. Eastern's third down conversion percentage was 11th at 46.1 percent, and Best hopes his offense can maintain – if not improve – that mark in 2018.
 
"The challenge to me is to always get a little better at things you weren't good at, but just because you are good at something doesn't mean you are going to replicate that again," he explained. "Our third down percentage was off the charts, and when you have a percentage that high you are going to give yourself a chance to win because you are going to move the sticks."
 
Eastern had 14 interceptions on offense, which is more than Best cared for the Eagles to have.
 
"We threw the ball to the other team too many times," he explained. "When you are talking about being in the mid-teens, that's more than one a game and that's too many. We want to go about improving that in a positive way because we want to stay aggressive with our approach on offense. We want to learn from it and help make our players make plays. We want to applaud the other team's defense for getting the ball out, not because it was hand-wrapped and gifted to them by us."
 
Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud followed a record-breaking, honor-filled sophomore season with a solid junior season. He is backed up by strong-armed sophomore Eric Barriere, who saw action in five games as a redshirt freshman – including one as a starter.
 
A second team All-Big Sky selection in 2017 after winning MVP honors as a sophomore, Gubrud is a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award presented by STATS to the top offensive player in FCS. He was second in FCS in total offense per game (357.8) and fourth in passing yards per game (334.2) as a junior, after leading in both passing and total offense (368.6 and 411.0, respectively) in 2016.
 
Most importantly, Gubrud is 17-6 in 23 games as a starter, and in 27 total games as an Eagle he has 9,441 yards of total offense and 8,568 passing yards. A duplication of last year's totals (3,578 total offense and 3,342 passing) and he'll challenge Big Sky records owned by former Eagle Matt Nichols (13,308 total offense and 12,616 passing).
 
Barriere saw action in five games as a freshman, and led EWU to a victory at North Dakota in his only start. He completed 13-of-23 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 15 times for 55 yards in that game, while getting sacked only once and committing no turnovers.
 
At running back, the Eagles return junior Antoine Custer Jr. He started 10 Eastern games, and senior Sam McPherson started the other. Juniors Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt are also returning letterwinners.
 
Custer has started 16 career games in his first two seasons as an Eagle, and already has 1,192 yards on the ground, 463 receiving and 499 on kickoff returns for a total of 2,154 all-purpose yards (89.8 per game) in 24 games. He earned second team All-Big Sky honors in 2017 when he finished with 776 yards and 10 TDs on the ground.
 
McPherson added 477 rushing yards in 2017 and has career totals of 649 on the ground, 448 receiving and 1,259 all-purpose yards in 30 games. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a junior. Pierce has 287 rushing yards in 21 career games, and Merritt has 126 in 13 outings.
 
Eastern's running game has made strides, but Best – a former offensive lineman – still wants that phase of Eastern's game to improve. Eastern averaged 156.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 per carry a year ago.
 
 "We upped our yardage per game and per carry, but it needs to be and will be better," he said. "Anywhere between 175 and 180 per game would be a good number, but we're still trying to hit that 4.5 per carry mark. When you add in quarterbacks, running backs and tackles for loss, you have a pretty productive run offense if you are averaging 4.5. So it's not necessarily yards per game which is most important, it's yards per carry."
 
The Eagles return plenty of targets for Gubrud to throw to, including 2017 starters Nsimba Webster and Zach Eagle. They are seniors, as well as Terence Grady, who also has starting experience.
 
Webster has started 12 of the 29 games he's played in his career, and was a third team All-Big Sky selection in 2017. He was 36th in FCS in receptions (5.4 per game, total of 59) and 68th in yards (63.0, total of 693) in 2017, giving him 72 receptions for 854 yards and seven scores as an Eagle.
 
Junior Jayson Williams also has starting experience, and junior Dre' Sonte Dorton and sophomore Johnny Edwards IV also are back as returning letterwinners. Williams caught 20 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown in 2017, while Dorton finished with 10 catches for 164 yards and two scores. Edwards had six grabs for 72 yards as a true freshman.
 
A trio of tight ends are back, including junior starter Jayce Gilder. Senior Henderson Belk and sophomore Talolo Limu-Jones also have significant experience as returning letterwinners.
 
Gilder caught six passes for 74 yards and two scores in 2017, and Belk had two for nine yards and a TD. But Limu-Jones proved to be a big target for the Eagles with four touchdown catches among his 11 catches for 148 yards.
 
After losing seven senior offensive linemen in 2015, the Eagles rebuilt their line in 2016 and 2017 around center Spencer Blackburn. Now a senior, he has been a second team All-Big Sky selection in each of the past two seasons. A year ago, Eastern was fifth in FCS in total offense (476.7 per game), and was also eighth in passing (320.5), 14th in scoring (34.5) and 11th in third down conversions (46.1 percent).
 
Juniors Tristen Taylor and Chris Schlichting both return with 25 career starts on their resumes. Both can play either guard or tackle, with Taylor – an All-Big Sky honorable mention selection in both 2016 and 2017 -- starting at guard last year while Schlichting started at tackle. Senior guard Matt Meyer missed much of the 2017 season with an injury, but has 16 games of starting experience to his credit. Guard Jack Hunter is also a senior and has 12 career starts.
 
Other returning letterwinners back along the offense line are sophomore Nicholas Blair and senior Kaleb Levao at tackle; sophomore Conner Crist at guard; and junior Will Gram at both center and tackle. Sophomore D.J. Dyer is also back after redshirting in 2017 and playing as a true freshman in 2016. A former tight end, senior Beau Byus is expected to play on the offensive line exclusively in 2018, giving EWU a total of 11 letterwinners back at that position.
 
 
 
SPECIAL TEAMS
 
The expected return of Roldan Alcobendas as a sixth-year senior should add some consistency to Eastern's kicking game, as well as the availability of senior Brandyn Bangsund. Senior long snapper Curtis Billen is back for his fourth and final year as EWU's snapper.
 
In his 29-game career, Alcobendas has scored 201 points to rank third in school history in points kicking. He made 20-of-31 field goals and 141-of-146 extra points in his career, including a school-record string of consecutive career extra points made at 85. In the 2017 season, he made 46-of-47 extra point attempts and 10-of-14 field goals. He also handled kickoff duties much of the season, and averaged 59.8 yards on 39 kicks in 2017 with seven touchbacks. In his career, he has 107 kickoffs for a 57.4 average (6,143 total yards) with 17 touchbacks.
 
Bangsund has played in 17 games, and has made 22 extra points and a 29-yard field goal. He and Alcobendas could also punt if needed, but newcomer Trevor Bowens could also be the replacement for departed first team All-Big Sky Conference punter Jordan Dascalo.
 
The Eagles also have back a quartet of players with considerable experience returning kicks. Most notable is junior Dre' Sonte Dorton, who averaged 27.4 yards on 22 returns to finish ranked ninth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision and ninth in school history. A second team All-Big Sky selection as a return specialist, he had returns of 96 (touchdown), 51, 51, 49 and 38 in 2017. Dorton will enter 2018 with the fourth-best career average all-time at EWU (26.7).
 
The team was ninth in FCS at 24.3 per return in 2017, but also has back two other top-notch kickoff returners from the 2016 season. As a true freshman, Antoine Custer Jr. averaged 26.7 yards on 14 kickoff returns with a touchdown, with long returns of 93, 55 and 35 yards. Teammate Nsimba Webster had a 65-yard return against UC Davis, but broke his clavicle in the process. Webster had a 25.3 average per return in 2016, and EWU's 21.7 average as a team that season ranked fourth in the Big Sky and 25th nationally.
 
Senior Zach Eagle returns in 2018 to handle punt returner chores again. Thanks to a career-long 33-yard return in EWU's final game of the season against Portland State, he ranked 31st in FCS with an average of 6.8 yards per punt return.
 
 
 

2017 SEASON RECAP & NOTES

 
With Abrupt End, Eagles Finish 7-4 For 11th-Straight Winning Season
 
The Eastern football team secured a school-record 11th-straight winning season and had yet another outstanding Big Sky Conference campaign in 2017, but the Eagles had their season come to a surprising end when EWU was denied its 13th berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
 
Eastern closed the season 7-4 overall and in a tie for third in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-2 record. It's the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky. The Eagles had already secured its record 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years.
 
The Eagles overcame a rash of injuries to win seven games, and, in some ways, that made the year extremely special for first-year head coach Aaron Best. His debut season was even better than those of previous Eagle head coaches Beau Baldwin (6-5), Paul Wulff (6-5) and Mike Kramer (4-7).
 
"That's what good teams do," he said of his team that had only five players start every game at the same position in 2017.  "I would argue that we were a great team. We started playing our best football late and won seven of our last nine."
 
The Eagles had 13 players selected to the All-Big Sky Conference team, including 10 underclassmen. Defensive end Albert Havili was the team's only full-time senior starter for all 11 games on the defensive side, and wide receiver Nic Sblendorio was the lone senior starter on offense.
 
"We were 7-4, but the standard around here is better than 7-4," said Best. "We're used to championships and hardware – at different times in Eastern's history that may be a Super Bowl season, but now it's sub-par. I like that about our mentality and we'll attack our off-season based on that. We will have a chip on both shoulders."
 
Eastern's suffered three losses to FCS teams with a combined 28-5 record, and the other loss was the FBS member Texas Tech. North Dakota State, Weber State and Southern Utah advanced to the FCS Playoffs, and all three were conference champions. The Bison went on to win their sixth FCS title in seven seasons and the Wildcats lost in the semifinals.
 
"I'm so proud of this darn team," he added. "Of the four losses we had, three of them were to conference champions and the other is from Lubbock. We won the games we were supposed to win, and played lights out in a lot of our games. Our team should not hang their heads – they battled through 11 games and we ended up on the right side of things in seven of them."
 
Thanks to voters understanding EWU's strength of schedule, Eastern finished the regular season ranked 17th in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, which was announced prior to the pairings announcement. Northern Arizona was ranked 25th, Southern Utah was 12th and Weber State was 11th. In the poll of coaches, Eastern was 19th, Weber State was eighth, Southern Utah was 13th and the Lumberjacks were unranked. In the final polls after the playoffs, Eastern was ranked 21st by STATS and 22nd by the coaches.
 
 
13 Eagles Selected to All-Big Sky Team
 
The Eagles had 13 players honored on the All-Big Sky Conference team announced Nov. 21, but even more noteworthy is the number 10. That's the number of selections expected to return for the 2018 campaign, as only a trio of seniors – including first team pick Jordan Dascalo – were on the list of Eagles selected by the league's head coaches for yearly honors in the Big Sky. Besides Dascalo, Eastern's 13 selections included six players on the second team, three on the third team and three receiving honorable mention.
 
The six second team selections included junior quarterback Gage Gubrud, who was one of 25 finalists for the Walter Payton Award presented by STATS to the top offensive player in FCS. The other second team selections were senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio, junior center Spencer Blackburn, sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr., senior defensive end Albert Havili and sophomore kickoff return specialist Dre' Sonte Dorton.
 
On the third team were junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster, junior safety Mitch Fettig, and true freshman special teams standout Anfernee Gurley. Junior running back Sam McPherson, junior cornerback Josh Lewis, and sophomore offensive guard Tristen Taylor received honorable mention.
 
In 2016, a total of 13 players were honored when EWU won the Big Sky Conference title with an 8-0 record and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. One of those, Jay-Tee Tiuli, was a first team selection in 2016 but had to redshirt in 2017 after an early-season injury.
 
Formerly from Los Angeles and a transfer from Washington State, Dascalo led the Big Sky and was 16th in FCS in average per punt (42.6), with 16 of his 47 punts downed inside the opponent 20-yard line. His outstanding control and hang time helped Eastern rank 17th in FCS in net punting (38.24), allowing just 3.50 yards by opponents on punt returns in 2017 to rank fifth nationally. He had 12 punts of at least 50 yards in 2017, including a career-long 67-yarder that helped him earn Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors following EWU's win at North Dakota on Nov. 11.
 
Players off Eastern's productive offensive unit earned eight accolades. Eastern was seventh in FCS in passing (320.5 per game) and sixth in total offense (476.7) in the 2017 season, and was also 20th in scoring (34.5) and 10th in third down conversions (46.1 percent).
 
Among the other seniors honored, Sblendorio was 12th in FCS with an average of 6.2 catches per game (72 total) and 25th in yards (82.9 per game, total of 912). Havili was 47th in FCS and fifth in the league in sacks with an average of 0.64 per game (seven total), and also had 41 total tackles, four passes broken up and seven quarterback hurries.
 
The 2017 season was a rare year in which an Eagle did not win the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honor. In 2016, Gubrud was the co-Offensive MVP along with Cooper Kupp, giving Eastern that award in 12 of the previous 16 seasons, including six of the previous seven. One of only 10 repeat winners in league history, Kupp in 2015 became only the second wide receiver in 42 years to win the honor.  Wide receiver Keelan Doss of UC Davis won the award in 2017 for a three-year run of receivers winning the honor.
 
Weber State's Taron Johnson was Defensive Player of the Year, Troy Anderson of Montana State was Freshman of the Year and Jake Maier of UC Davis was the league's Newcomer of the Year.
 
 
2017 All-Big Sky Selections from Eastern Washington
 
First Team -- Punter - 45 - Jordan Dascalo - 6-1 - 225 - Sr. - 3L - Los Angeles, Calif. (Taft HS '13 & Washington State Univ.)
Second Team -- #Quarterback - 8 - Gage Gubrud - 6-2 - 205 - Jr. - 3L* - McMinnville, Ore. (McMinnville HS '14)
Second Team -- Wide Receiver - 7 - Nic Sblendorio - 6-0 - 185 - Sr. - 4L* - Sammamish, Wash. (Skyline HS '13)
Second Team -- Running Back - 28 - Antoine Custer Jr. - 5-9 - 190 - So. - 2L - Berkeley, Calif. (De La Salle '16)
Second Team -- ~Center - 75 - Spencer Blackburn - 6-2 - 285 - Jr. - 2L * - Bellingham, Wash. (Meridian HS '14)
Second Team -- Defensive End - 4 - Albert Havili - 6-2 - 270 - Sr. - 4L* - Federal Way, Wash. (Federal Way HS '13)
Second Team -- Return Specialist - 87 - Dre' Sonte Dorton - 5-10 - 185 - So. – 1L* - Pasco, Wash. (Chiawana HS '15)
Third Team -- Wide Receiver - 5 - Nsimba Webster - 5-10 - 180 - Jr. - 3L* - Antioch, Calif. (Deer Valley HS '14)
Third Team -- ^Safety - 13 - Mitch Fettig - 6-1 - 200 - Jr. - 3L* - Olympia, Wash. (Olympia HS '14)
Third Team -- Special Teams - 34 - Anfernee Gurley - DB - 5-10 - 180 - Fr. – 1L - Everett, Wash. (Archbishop Murphy HS '17)
Honorable Mention -- ^Offensive Guard - 65 - Tristen Taylor - 6-6 - 315 - So. - 2L * - Stockton, Calif. (Stagg HS '15)
Honorable Mention -- Running Back - 20 - Sam McPherson - 5-10 - 200 - Jr. - 2L - Bothell, Wash. (Bothell 'HS '15)
Honorable Mention -- Cornerback - 1 - Josh Lewis - 6-0 - 190 - Jr. - 2L* - Lakewood, Wash. (Steilacoom HS '14)
#Big Sky MVP & First Team All-Big Sky in 2016. ~Second Team All-Big Sky in 2016. ^Honorable mention All-Big Sky in 2016. *Has used redshirt year.
 
 
Despite Strength of Schedule, Eastern Denied a 13th FCS Playoff Berth in School History
 
Despite a high strength of schedule, Eastern was still on the outside looking in when the playoff pairings were announced on Nov. 19. North Dakota State and Southern Utah received byes and hosted games in the second round, while Weber State and Northern Arizona received at-large berths and hosted first-round games.
 
"It's unfortunate, not just for the seniors but the other people in and around the program," said Best, who was an assistant coach or player for nine of EWU's previous 12 berths. "They did enough to give themselves a chance to play a 12th game. It wasn't a matter of if we were going to see our name, but we thought it was merely a matter of when. I think we're all surprised, and that's probably an understatement. We would have loved to represent the Big Sky Conference and Eastern Washington in that field of 24."
 
The Eagles closed the regular season on a two-game winning streak and were winners of seven of their last nine. The lone losses in Big Sky play were 46-28 at Southern Utah on Oct. 21 and 28-20 versus Weber State on Nov. 4, and EWU also lost 40-13 to North Dakota State and 56-10 to Texas Tech to open the year.
 
"I don't need to necessarily need to agree with the answer, but I just want to give our players and program an answer to what we could have done differently," he asked. "We want to learn from it -- how do we make this better so we know what needs to take place moving forward."
 
North Dakota State concluded the season 14-1 and were FCS champions for the sixth time in seven seasons. Weber State closed 11-3 and Southern Utah was 9-3 after those two schools finished as league co-champions at 7-1. Texas Tech, a member of FBS, was 5-6 after a 3-0 start. Northern Arizona got into the playoffs with a 7-4 record and finished 7-5, and EWU will play a non-conference game versus NAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., next Sept. 8.
 
Despite the disappointing decision by the selection committee, Best vows Eastern will continue to schedule the toughest opposition possible in the future. Future FCS opponents for Eastern includes nationally-ranked Northern Arizona, Western Illinois and Jacksonville State, as well as FBS members Washington State, Washington, Florida and Oregon.
 
"It's going to be leave no doubt," he said of his program's focus moving forward. "That's won't just be our battle cry, it will be our motto. It wasn't the selection committee that went 7-4, it was the Eagles who went 7-4. We could have done more, so we don't want to put the blame or justification in another box when we could have done more.
 
"Yes, it's unfortunate we didn't get in with our strength of schedule, and we are going to continue to play teams like Washington, Washington State, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Sam Houston State, Western Illinois – we are not going to shy away," he continued. "We are going to stay with our blueprint, because four or five years ago that was a big emphasis. We were told strength of schedule was big, therefore, we took it upon ourselves to do that. We don't want to schedule differently just to get to 8-3 and appease the committee. We don't want to just get in, but we want to earn it."
 
In 2016, four Big Sky Conference schools advanced to the FCS Playoffs, with EWU and North Dakota receiving first-round byes and Weber State and Cal Poly playing on the opening weekend. Four league teams were also selected in 2013 when the playoffs expanded to 24 teams, but only three were picked in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, Northern Arizona and North Dakota were both 7-4 and were left out.
 
 
Eagles Clinch 20th Winning Season in 22 Years, Including 11 Straight
 
Eastern's 21-14 victory over North Dakota on Nov. 11 clinched Eastern's 20th winning season in the last 22 years (1996-2017), including a current string of 11-straight (2007-17) and another stretch of seven straight (1999-2005). The last time Eastern had that many winning seasons in a row came 75 years earlier in the Red Reese era when Eastern had a string of 11-straight winning seasons from 1931-1941. The 2017 season was Eastern's 109th year of football, and after finishing 7-4 overall, the Eagles are now 541-416-23 in 980 all-time games for a winning percentage of .564. In 397 games as a member of FCS (since 1984), EWU is 237-158-2 (.599). Eastern was 6-2 in the Big Sky, giving it a 147-91-0 record in 238 games (.618).
 
 
Eagles Finish Regular Season 17th in the Rankings
 
With a two-game winning streak to end the season, Eastern finished the regular season 17th in the weekly STATS Top 25 poll and to 19th in the coaches poll. Eastern fell from eighth to 14th in the STATS poll and was 12th by the coaches after its loss to Southern Utah on Oct. 21, was 11th in both polls after a bye week, and then was 19th by STATS and 21st by the coaches after its home loss to Weber State. Eastern rose to 18th/20th after a road win at North Dakota on Nov. 11.
 
Eastern has now been ranked by STATS in 83 of its last 84 polls, and in the top 10 in 19 of the last 25. Eastern had its streak of being in the top 10 snapped at 15 after losing at home 40-13 to the North Dakota State on Sept. 9, and again fell out of the top 10 on Oct. 23. Defending FCS champion James Madison has been No. 1 all season in both polls, but Jacksonville State took over the No. 2 spot after NDSU suffered its first loss of the season on Nov. 4.

Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2018 SWXRN. All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.