Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best’s stomach and mind are on different planes as he tries to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
Below the ribs, he’s optimistic.
“My gut tells me that we will be playing the (Sept. 5) opener at Florida,” said Best, whose team is slated to receive a $750,000 check for facing the Gators in Gainesville.
Above the neck, good, strange and unsavory scenarios are in a constant shift.
“Everything is on the table at this point,” Best said of the 2020 schedule. “Home-and-home series, playing on a bye week, changing the bye week, and playing Monday games later in the season.
“These last eight or nine weeks has given us time to come up with plans – even some unthinkable plans – to get ready before the season kicks off.”
EWU, a Football Championship Subdivision power that’s 26-12 in Best’s three seasons, returns a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball this fall, including the skill positions and linebacker groups, led by All-Big Sky quarterback Eric Barriere and linebacker Chris Ojoh.
After a disappointing 7-5 season and 6-2 mark in Big Sky play, EWU, which won five of its last six games in 2019, heads into the offseason with some steam.
Fifth-year senior safety Calin Criner recently said EWU’s winter workouts were the best he’d had during his time in Cheney following the postseason absence, but the Eagles didn’t get the opportunity to exhibit their growth this spring.
The pandemic and subsequent social distancing mandates wiped out all of spring football and school on the Cheney campus, ultimately keeping Best and his staff away from his team for nearly three months.
Coaches meetings, position meetings, recruiting, chat with trainers and the horde of other coaching responsibilities have been done mostly on Zoom video conference and by phone.
Some players had access to gym equipment at their homes. Others put together makeshift gyms to stay in shape, as most workout facilities across the country were shut down to try slow the spread of the virus.
“You can grab rocks, broad jump, and put rocks in a backpack and squat, you can do those things to stay in shape,” Best said, “But it’s the structure they’re missing most.”
When or if EWU gets the nod from state officials to resume practice and play, Best hopes the NCAA extends the length of preseason camp to prepare the players’ bodies after the football workout lulls.
“A month (of preseason practices) might not be enough,” he said. “Six weeks is what we’d hope for. Coaches will have some cobwebs they’re going to want to shake, too.”
The NCAA recently lifted a moratorium on voluntary athletic activities for Division I football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball programs, allowing student-athletes to participate in on-campus workouts starting on Monday.
The Pac-12 Conference announced last week that its member schools can begin voluntary workouts June 15.
EWU’s league – the Big Sky Conference – deferred the decision to resume athletics to each individual school, a move likely inspired by its large landscape, including eight states and their respective reopening plans.
Spokane County recently moved into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, in which athletes are allowed to work out in gyms again, but the capacity must be limited to five people or fewer.
A date hasn’t been set for EWU to begin voluntary workouts on campus, as the logistics are still being worked out, Best said.
Big Sky member Montana State announced last week that it will begin voluntary workouts on Monday.
When EWU football does return, it may also have to deal with the result of ensuing department-wide budget cuts that Lynn Hickey estimated to be around $2.1 million dollars, resulting from a variety of losses due to the pandemic.
Belt-tightening measures are imminent.
“It’s going to be all hands on deck,” Best said “The last thing we want to do is affect the scholarships of the student-athletes.
“But we’ve always battled at Eastern. People want to point out what we don’t have, and our guys look at what we do have. As you’re looking what you trim, we have to evaluate our needs and wants.”
Three more transfers for Eagles
EWU welcomed three more transfers to its roster this spring, all former Washington prep football stars.
The Eagles added Washington transfer in running back Jamyn Patu (5-foot-11, 205 pounds), who redshirted his freshman season with the Huskies in 2018 and sat out in 2019.
Patu, the former Associated Press and Seattle Times player of the year at O’Dea High School, rushed for 3,777 yards and 42 touchdowns on 430 carries (155.8 per game average) in his junior and senior seasons.
Robert Mason III, a junior receiver, is also on EWU’s roster after starting two games as a true freshman for Central Washington in 2018.
Mason (6-1, 180), a Graham-Kapowsin product, had 20 catches for 214 yards and a touchdown in his two seasons at CWU. He will redshirt in Cheney this season.
The Eagles also added former Richland standout Jacobe Lee (6-2, 275), a defensive lineman who comes from United States Air Force Prep School in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Lee, an all-state first-team selection at Richland and the Mid-Columbia Conference Lineman of the Year, helped the Bombers win a State 4A title in 2017.
EWU ranked 18th in poll
EWU was ranked 18th in the HERO Sports’ preseason FCS football poll released Wednesday.
The Eagles were picked behind four Big Sky members, including Sacramento State (No. 4), Weber State (No. 6), Montana State (No. 7) and Montana (No. 9).
North Dakota State, which has won eight of the past nine FCS national title games, was picked first.
EWU stars Barriere (second-team offense) and Ojoh (third-team defense) were named HERO preseason All-Americans.
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