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In the long run, Eastern Washington benefited from 2018 injuries

Eastern Washington linebacker Jack Sendelbach (52) reacts after a stop during the second half  Nov. 18, 2017, at Roos Field in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington linebacker Jack Sendelbach (52) reacts after a stop during the second half Nov. 18, 2017, at Roos Field in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

If Eastern Washington had stayed relatively healthy during its 2018 run to the Football Championship Subdivision national title game, there would be more questions this month than answers.

Quarterback Eric Barriere, who stepped in for injured All-American Gage Gubrud in Week 6, would be an unknown commodity instead of a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate.

Linebacker Chris Ojoh, a late-season starter who filled in for injured senior Kurt Calhoun, wouldn’t have racked up over 100 tackles and become one the league’s most menacing second-level defenders.

Those are two examples of the fourth-ranked Eagles’ serendipity, but there are several.

Season-ending injuries to then-seniors Mitch Fettig (safety) and Cole Karstetter (rover) as well as junior Tysen Prunty, another starting safety who missed some games, gave young talents like Dehonta Hayes, Calin Criner and Kedrick Johnson time to mature quicker than expected.

The loss of hulking left tackle Tristen Taylor to injury in Week 3 last season also forced EWU to shuffle around some younger bodies. Taylor has since resumed his position.

Because of those ailments, the Eagles are deeper at most position groups than they were a year ago in fall camp.

Then there are talents such as junior linebacker Jack Sendelbach and safety/nickel linebacker Anfernee Gurley, who didn’t register a snap last season after successful 2017 campaigns.

They’re back. And they’re hungry.

Sendelbach, who has the look of a Pac-12 linebacker at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, was twice named the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week in 2017, but a back injury early in fall camp last season sidelined him for the season.

“The irony of it all – me and Trevor (Davis) going down with injuries – it it just helped other guys play,” said Sendelbach, who had 13 tackles against eventual national champion North Dakota State in 2017.

Now he’ll be running down ballcarriers with Ojoh and other experienced linebackers such as Andrew Katzenberger and Washington graduate transfer Jusstis Warren, who could see also see time at defensive end.

Sendelbach said he’s wiser after a year of injury-induced film study and Ojoh has gained experienced, making the loss of leading tackle Ketner Kupp (Los Angeles Rams) an easier pill to swallow.

“Looking back (the injury) had a lot of impact on me mentally because I had to watch film differently. I learned a lot of stuff about my body,” Sendelbach said. “As much as it did suck playing a lot (in 2017) then having to redshirt, I learned a lot about myself.”

Gurley, who went down with a knee injury early in fall camp last season, was suited up Monday. As a true freshman in 2017, Gurley, who rotated on the back end of the Eagles’ defense, was a third-team All-Big Sky selection for his defensive special teams play.

Senior right tackle Chris Schlichting, one of four EWU offensive linemen to have started over 20 games and earned All-Big Sky distinction, is excited about the return of Taylor.

“It’s awesome,” Schlichting said. “It helps having a bona fide starter there. It’s huge. In my mind, he’s an All-American guy and will help boost our offense.”

Spencer Blackburn, a sixth-year All-American center, was given an extra year of eligibility due to his season-ending hand injury at the start his 2015 season.

Kaleb Levao, a sixth-year All-Big Sky right guard, was given an extra season of eligibility this fall because of his season-ending injury early in the 2017 season.

Now the stars have seemingly aligned for the throng of formerly injured players aiming for the school’s first national championship since 2010.

“It all seemed weird a year ago, but now it’s beneficial,” Sendelbach said.

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