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EWU spring football: Staff stresses physical line play

Eastern Washington RB Ashanti Kindle side-steps DB John Kreifels during the Red-White spring game last Saturday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington RB Ashanti Kindle side-steps DB John Kreifels during the Red-White spring game last Saturday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

While Eastern Washington fans focused on the quarterbacks, the Eagles’ coaches devoted much of their energies this spring where it matters most: in the trenches.

That’s doubly true this year at Eastern, where an offensive line must be rebuilt and a defensive front re-energized.

As spring practices wound down last week, Eastern seemed well on the way to accomplishing both – for now, anyway.

“It’s always a work in progress,” said Aaron Best, the Eastern offensive line coach who is tasked with replacing his top seven performers.

“The talent is there, but talent doesn’t win ballgames. We need to be in situations that are loud and hostile,” Best said.

Come September, Best will get his wish. The Eagles open the season at Washington State and North Dakota State – big tests for the line and the whole offense.

Defensively, the Eagles showed more aggression – the byproduct of added offseason muscle.

Speaking of spring practice in general and the Red-White Spring Game in particular, second-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said, “I thought there were some really good things from a physical standpoint – I thought we took some big steps in our physicality.”

Here’s a position-by-position look at how the Eagles shape up after spring practices:

Quarterback: Baldwin has said all spring that he’s confident in all three of his top quarterbacks, including senior Jordan West and sophomores Reilly Hennessey and Gage Gubrud. All have good arms, but Gubrud separated himself with his mobility. He’s not Vernon Adams Jr., but Gubrud’s elusiveness is an ingredient the Eagles lacked last year.

Running backs: The Eagles return just three players, including senior Jabari Wilson (661 yards last year), and underclassmen Sam McPherson and Ashanti Kindle. That isn’t enough. Said Baldwin last week: “I’d be surprised if one or two (true freshmen) didn’t play this fall.” The Eagles need depth in the backfield, but also some speed. That in turn will help spread the field – a missing ingredient in the ground game last year.

Wide receivers: Is there a better group in the Football Championship Subdivision? Probably not. Led by three-time All-American Cooper Kupp (1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns on 114 receptions last year) and Kendrick Bourne (73 catches, 998 yards, eight TDs), the Eagles are as talented as it gets. They’re deep too, with returnees Shaq Hill, Nic Sblendorio, Simba Webster, Terence Grady, Stu Stiles and several others who shined this spring. Expect the Eagles to go to their strength and pass the ball while keeping opposing defenses off-balance with Gubrud’s threat to run.

Offensive line: Not surprisingly for a group so young, most of the positions are up for grabs. Baldwin said he noticed solid development from the 10 players in spring camp. “They’re very good players, but like any talented group, it takes playing together as a unit,” Baldwin said.

Defensive line: This year’s group will have a good balance of youth and experience, with tackle Matthew Sommer and Samson Ebukan providing leadership. Younger players showed notable gains during winter conditioning, which along with some more aggressive schemes this fall should keep the Eagles from falling behind the chains like last year.

Linebackers: Led by senior Miquiyah Zamora and sophomore Alek Kacmarcik, the ’backers look solid. There’s plenty of depth; Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun look to be the top backups.

Defensive backs: Thanks to its talent, depth and greater understanding of the 4-2-5 scheme, this unit could be the most improved on the team. Corners Nzuzi Webster, Victor Gamboa and Josh Lewis figure to lead a group that seems to be improving in maturity – as in when to take chances in coverage and when to play it safer. Roverback Cole Karstetter looks comfortable in that role. The safeties, led by Zach Bruce and Mitch Fettig, are solid and experienced.

Special teams: A three-way race for kicker won’t be decided until fall, but Brandyn Bangsund, Jordan Dascalo and Roldan Alcobendas all have college experience. Most of the other positions look solid: Dascalo at punter, Curtis Billen at long snapper and Kupp at punt return. Several candidates will get a shot at returning kickoffs.

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