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Eastern Washington running backs plan to embrace bigger role

UPDATED: Thu., April 6, 2017, 4:58 p.m.

Antoine Custer took two kickoffs to the house last year for Eastern Washington. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Antoine Custer took two kickoffs to the house last year for Eastern Washington. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

This is the first of an eight-part series on spring football at Eastern Washington. Today: the running backs.

Tamarick Pierce has a message for pass-happy Eastern Washington football fans: Running the ball can be fun, too.

So is winning, especially in December.

The Eagles plan to do both this fall under new coach Aaron Best, who will be relying on Pierce and the other running backs to get the job done and get Eastern to the FCS title game.

While striving for balance, Best and his offensive coaches have made it clear that the running backs will get more than 258 carries this year, and that quarterback Gage Gubrud won’t be the leading rusher.

“Last year it was what it was,” said Pierce, a 200-pounder who rushed for 220 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns last year as a true freshman.

“I’m just happy that the end result kept being a ‘W,’ ” Pierce said.

However, the result wasn’t a win last Dec. 17, when Youngstown State fashioned a 40-38 semifinal victory at Roos Field by using ball control.

Eastern couldn’t respond. The Eagles put up big numbers but ran just 56 plays all year with an offense that was too fast for conditions.

“That ultimately killed us,” running back Sam McPherson said. “Now opponents are going to have to honor the run more.”

“We’re all excited to get more downhill,” Pierce said. “We’re going to be more balanced.”

With a group of young backs and a solid offensive line, Eastern has the weapons to do it.

Pierce was the best third-down back last year, but the most versatile is Antoine Custer Jr. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Custer managed 416 yards and five touchdowns on 98 carries, an average of 4.2 yards per touch.

He also was a factor in the passing game with 27 catches and the first TD of the season, in the win at Washington State.

“I was just going with the flow, getting as many reps as I could to get a chance to show off my skills,” said Custer, who also thrived as a kickoff returner.

Going into his redshirt sophomore year, Custer said he’s excited about the chance to run more this year.

“As a running back, that’s a good thing to hear,” Custer said.

The other key returee is McPherson, a 190-pound junior who had 299 combined yards last year.

Also in the fold are junior Ashanti Kindle, Adam Gascoyne, Dennis Merritt and Jordan Laurencio. Unlike last year, the Eagles didn’t sign any high school running backs this year.

The other big change is the coach. After Kiel McDonald left for Utah, the Eagles landed one of the top assistants in the Big Sky Conference in Kevin Maurice.

At North Dakota, Maurice coached All-America running back John Santiago, who earned first-team All-Big Conference honors in 2015 and 2016, and was the league’s Freshman of the Year in 2015

Last year, Maurice helped Brady Oliveira earn third-team All-Big Sky honors.

He has also had collegiate coaching stops at Purdue, Nevada, Miami, Cincinnati and Midwestern State, as well as a brief stint with the Cleveland Browns.

“He’s been a part of some very successful programs and teams,” Best said.

Coming up: part two, the quarterbacks

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