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EWU spring football: Eagles’ offensive line a work in progress with high ceiling

Tackle Nick Ellison is the most experienced of a very green offensive line at Eastern. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Tackle Nick Ellison is the most experienced of a very green offensive line at Eastern. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

This is the fourth in an eight-part series on spring football at Eastern Washington. Today: the offensive line.

To all the defensive coordinators in the Big Sky Conference: Don’t feel sorry for Aaron Best.

In a year or two, Best plans to shove that pity down your throat.

For now, the veteran Eastern Washington offensive line coach is beginning one of the biggest rebuilding projects in Eagle history. Best is replacing his entire starting lineup and his top two backups.

“We knew three years ago that this was going to be the ultimate challenge,” said Best, whose unit has traditionally been among the best in the Big Sky and helped the Eagles set numerous records the past four seasons.

“We won’t be as good going into game one as we were last year … but I think that with the talent and the commitment of these kids, we could have a special group,” said Best, whose 10 players in spring camp include just one upperclassman.

Embracing the analogy of building a house, Best said the foundation is being laid during practices in the south end zone of Roos Field. The frame is already stronger after several players added as much as 20 pounds during winter conditioning.

“Now we’re bringing the cement truck,” said Best, who added that some position assignments – “moving the furniture,” he calls it – must wait until fall.

Here’s how the Eagle offensive line is shaping up this spring:

Tackle

The most experienced returnee is Nick Ellison, who started four games at right tackle after an injury to Cassidy Curtis. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound redshirt sophomore from Moscow is going into his fourth year of organized football, but Best says he’s “grown up on and off the field – that’s a huge benefit for us.”

On the left side, Tristen Taylor is getting most of the first-unit snaps this spring. The 6-7, 330-pound redshirt freshman from Stockton, California, is vying to replace All-American Clay DeBord – no easy task. “I’m messing up a little bit, but I’m getting it down,” said Taylor, who added that the job was made easier after the coaches “brought down the playbook a little bit.”

Guard

A year after Thomas Gomez and All-American Aaron Neary started every game, the Eagles are starting over. For now, Best is using at least five different players in various combinations. The most experienced are Washington State transfer Matt Meyer, a 310-pound redshirt sophomore from Lynden, Washington; and classmate Jack Hunter, a 285-pounder from Gonzaga Prep.

Also in the mix are freshmen Ben PuaPuaga, a 330-pounder from Tacoma; Chris Schlichting (295 pounds, North Bend); and Will Gram, a 290-pounder who’s making the transition from eight-man football in Troy, Idaho.

“I’m excited to see his progress,” Best said of Gram.

Center

The early front-runner is versatile redshirt sophomore Jerrod Jones, a 6-5, 295-pound redshirt senior-to-be from Arlington, Washington. Jones saw action last year at both tackle spots and is “one of the more athletic guys we have,” said Best, who is “forcing center reps down his throat” this spring as he seeks to replace T.J. Boatright.

Jones is capable of playing any O-line position, Best said.

The other contender is Spencer Blackburn, a 6-3, 280-pound redshirt sophomore from Bellingham who missed all of 2015 with a thumb injury.

Four more linemen will arrive in the fall out of a strong high school class highlighted by three-star recruit Conner Crist (a 6-3, 305-pounder from Tigard, Oregon) and Jake Blackburn (6-3, 265, Newbury Park, California).

Tight end

The lack of experience on the line is partly offset by a four-man group that’s headlined by senior Zach Wimberly. The 240-pounder from Tumwater, Washington, is a solid blocker as well as a receiving threat in the red zone. Last year he caught seven balls for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

Also expected to see playing time are redshirt sophomores Henderson Belk and Beau Byus, and redshirt freshman Jayce Gilder.

Coming Saturday: part five, the defensive line

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