FRISCO, Texas – Eastern Washington nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli donned a game jersey and red football pants Thursday as he posed for a team picture at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
It was the first time the Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP appeared in front of media since a Dec. 8 assault arrest in Cheney, leading to his suspension in the Eagles’ FCS semifinal game against Maine.
EWU (12-2), which faces top-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday in the FCS national title game, may have the services of the 6-foot-4, 315-pound senior.
But maybe not.
EWU head coach Aaron Best said he expects to know Friday if Tiuli will return.
Tiuli flew down with the team on Wednesday night, but Best said his status hasn’t changed since Best spoke on the matter last week, saying the decision was a university matter.
Against a NDSU team with big and powerful offensive front, Tiuli’s return would be a major boon for the Eagles.
Tiuli was initially arrested for felony assault after a fight with his brother that allegedly rendered him unconscious, according to Cheney police, but the charge was later amended.
According to Spokane County Court records, Tiuli’s charge was dropped down to second-degree misdemeanor assault.
Big rain, big stage
Eastern Washington receiver Nsimba Webster and his twin brother, cornerback Nzuzi Webster, said they each got chills when they walked into Toyota Stadium.
“It’s crazy. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re finally here,’ ” Nzuzi said. “Seeing the posters on buildings, and everything like that. We made it to the big stage.”
After a recent $58 million revamping, the stadium was full of EWU, NDSU and NCAA flags and banners, including digital scoreboards with the Eagles’ logo. The south end zone read Eastern in red and black.
EWU was met with rain, cold and gray skies on Wednesday and Thursday, not the sort of Texas weather players said they expected.
The forecast for kickoff is sunny and 52 degrees. Nsimba said he’s fine with whatever weather comes.
“It’s not that bad. We’re used to this weather in Cheney,” Nsimba said. “(NDSU,) they’re the indoor team. We’re outdoors, so hopefully we’d have the advantage if it rains.”
Merritt ready to step up
For the most of the season, speedy EWU running back Dennis Merritt was No. 4 on the depth chart.
He still rushed for 348 yards and three touchdowns on 43 carries (8.1 yards per carry), and has also hauled in a touchdown pass.
But with trusty No. 3 running back Tamarick Pierce (550 yards, seven TDs) out with a knee injury, the junior from Leavenworth, Washington, will see his workload increase on the biggest stage in FCS football.
“We have a high standard, and we go into every rep in practice like we’re the No. 1 guy,” Merritt said. “I’m a very patient guy. I love working hard and I love this team.”
Merritt is one of three starters from small Washington 1A schools, joining defensive end Jim Townsend (Okanogan) and center Spencer Blackburn (Meridian).
He’s part of a deep group of running backs that has set an EWU single-season record of 3,682 rushing yards.
Hayes embraces opportunity
Earlier in the season, junior safety Dehonta Hayes’ reps were limited.
He rotated behind starters Mitch Fettig and Tysen Prunty, but when both went down with injuries late in the season (Prunty has since returned), Hayes was thrust into the starting lineup.
Now Hayes ranks third on the team in tackles (81), including a game-high 13 against Maine in a 50-19 semifinal rout.
“When I wasn’t getting many reps, I was just down on myself,” he said. “But I just kept pushing through it.”
Starting in the national game will be a surreal experience, he said.
“I’ve never made it this far at any level of football,” Hayes said. “I’m just so excited and I can’t wait for Saturday to come.”
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