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Eastern starts spring football with plenty of question marks

Eastern Washington's Jabari Wilson, fighting for yards in last season’s Red-White spring game, is the only experienced back returning for the Eagles. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington's Jabari Wilson, fighting for yards in last season’s Red-White spring game, is the only experienced back returning for the Eagles. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There’s more than the usual amount of mystery surrounding Eastern Washington football this spring.

During the next 14 practices and 29 days, the Eagles will renew the quarterback battle that ended so inconclusively last year, rebuild their offensive line, try to identify the next legend at receiver and hope for more aggressiveness on defense.

All that will happen as the Eagles are coming off disastrous November and a 6-5 season that satisfied no one in Cheney – and are looking ahead to the most demanding nonconference schedule anyone can remember.

On the plus side, the Eagles return 56 letter winners, including most of their skill-position players on offense and all but two defensive starters.

Here are four key questions going into spring ball, which begins Thursday afternoon at Roos Field:

How will the offensive line look going into fall?

The Eagles saw this coming a year ago, when all five starters and the top two reserves were entering their senior year.

“One year you’re ready to work part-time, and all of a sudden you’re changing diapers,” line coach Aaron Best joked at the time.

Now it’s time to break out the Huggies, as Best tries to reconstitute a unit that contributed to four straight record-breaking seasons and included all-Americans Clay DeBord and Aaron Neary.

The learning curve will be steep. Of the returnees, only Nick Ellison and Jerrod Jones got meaningful playing time last year – and that was because of injuries.

Speaking of which, run blocking will have to improve sharply, as backs Jalen Moore and Malcolm Williams Jr. have left the program due to injury. That leaves just three ball carriers in spring camp, with senior Jabari Wilson the only one with experience.

By the end of fall camp, the new line will be tested against Washington State (9-4 last year), five-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State and playoff regular Northern Iowa.

However, Best has numbers on his side; in addition to the nine returnees who’ll slog it out in spring, the Eagles signed five high school linemen to national letters of intent.

Who will emerge as the front-runner at quarterback?

A year ago, it was Jordan West’s job to lose – which he finally did in November. The EWU passing game led the nation (with 353 yards a game) but struggled down the stretch as no one could pick up the pieces.

Last year, West was among the top-rated quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision, but went 39-for-84 in his last three outings and didn’t play in the season-ending loss to Portland State.

Now West goes into his senior year facing a stiffer challenge from redshirt sophomores Reilly Hennessey (59-for-91, 773 yards) and mobile Gage Gubrud. Waiting in the wings in the fall is three-star recruit Eric Barriere.

All of them have a new teacher in former Cal star Troy Taylor, who takes over from Zak Hill.

Will the star of the future emerge at wide receiver?

To everyone’s relief (and a little bit of surprise) three-time All-American Cooper Kupp (114 catches for 1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns last year) will return for a senior season that promises to break every major record in FCS.

Kupp has plenty of help in Kendrick Bourne (73 catches, 998 yards, 8 TDs) and Shaq Hill, but all are entering their final year. The trio should be among the best in FCS, especially if Hill is fully recovered from knee surgery.

So who will step up and provide depth and make a case to start next season?

Atop the list are junior Terence Grady and Nic Sblendorio, but look out for returnees Simba Webster, Stu Stiles, Jayson Williams and Zach Eagle.

Can the defense regain its aggressiveness?

Last year, the Eagles switched to a base 4-2-5 defense that brought more speed and was expected to bring a little more pressure against the quarterback.

It didn’t happen. As the season went on, the Eastern defense struggled to get off the field. For many fans, the most galling statistic of the season was opponents’ 49.7 percent success rate on third down; out of 131 teams in FCS, only two were worse.

In the last three games, Northern Arizona, Montana and PSU were a combined 34-for-50 on third down, a major reason the Eagles missed the postseason for the first time in four years.

The hope this year is that an undersized line picked up some pounds during the offseason, that someone will thrive in the roverback position after the graduation of Todd Raynes, and that another playmaker can be found after the offseason retirement of linebacker Jake Gall.

The Eagles will be buoyed by the return of lineman Albert Havili and perhaps by new line coach Eti Ena, an Eastern alum.

Notes

Thursday’s practice is the first of 14. Most practices will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with scrimmages on April 9 and 16; all are open to the public. The Red-White Spring Game will be April 23 at Roos Field. The spring game is held before the 34th Annual Killin Dinner, Dance and Auction.

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