Behind a proven junior class and key players returning from injury, the 2019 Eagles could make another deep postseason run.
FRISCO, Texas — Injuries piled up like laundry for Eastern Washington’s massive, talent-heavy senior class.
But so did the resulting experience of fill-in youngsters who, in some cases, had more physical tools than their predecessors.
By the time EWU reached the program’s second FCS national title game Saturday at Toyota Stadium — it fell 38-24 to juggernaut North Dakota State, the Bison’s seventh title in eight seasons — the Eagles’ best redshirt freshmen and sophomores were seasoned commodities.
Couple that with a proven junior class and key players returning from injury, and the 2019 Eagles should have the means to make another deep postseason run.
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More than 25 lettermen return from EWU’s two-deep depth chart, which doesn’t include returners who sat out this season with injuries, including All-Big Sky talents Anfernee Gurley (safety), Tristen Taylor (left tackle) and linebacker Jack Sendelbach, twice named the conference’s defensive player of the week in 2017.
Second-year head coach Aaron Best — the Big Sky Coach of the Year — preached competitive depth, and the Eagles had plenty.
When a player went down — nearly a dozen starters suffered season-derailing injuries — there was rarely a drop in talent when EWU plugged in a reserve.
The most prominent example was sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere (3,249 total career yards, 34 TDs) who filled in nicely for injured All-American senior quarterback Gage Gubrud.
Barriere is already eyeing a return to Frisco.
“Just hungry, really, because the offseason starts now,” said Barriere, who directed the offense to averages of 43 points and 528 yards a game. “Like, since the other game is over, watch film, just take all that with me and just be better, really, that’s all I can say, because next year we’ve got a lot of players coming back and hopefully we can return again.”
Defensively, the most impressive fill-in was sophomore linebacker Chris Ojoh, who earned a full-time starting job in October when senior linebacker Kurt Calhoun was lost for the year. Ojoh finished second on the team in tackles (105 tackles) and was often a wrecking ball against the country’s best (11 tackles, sack, two tackles for a loss against NDSU).
Barriere and Ojoh are now potential 2019 preseason candidates for the Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan awards, given to the country’s top offensive and defensive player, respectively.
All-American center Spencer Blackburn, All-Big Sky right guard Kaleb Levao and receiver Zach Eagle are seniors but may return. They are applying for medical redshirts, Blackburn and Levao because of injuries earlier in their careers, and Eagle because of an injury this season.
Eastern’s most senior-dominated position group among a senior class of 27 was its decorated offensive line, so the return of Blackburn and Levao would be a major boost, as they would potentially rejoin returning All-Big Sky tackles Chris Schlichting and Taylor.
The Eagles lose their leading rusher in Sam McPherson (1,510 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns), but return Antoine Custer, Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt, who combined to rush for 1,521 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
EWU also loses its top receiver in speedster Nsimba Webster (1,379 yards, 11 touchdowns), but returns trusty targets Andrew Boston, Jayson Williams, Johnny Edwards and tight end Jayce Gilder, who hauled in a combined 102 passes for 1,283 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Defensively, EWU’s cornerbacks group takes the hardest hit, losing all three primary ballhawks (Josh Lewis, D’londo Tucker and Nzuzi Webster) who helped the Eagles set a school-record with 70 pass breakups and finish second in the country in forced turnovers (34).
Safety and rover are loaded, though, returning Gurley, Dehonta Hayes, Calin Criner, Tysen Prunty, Anthany Smith and Kedrick Johnson, all of whom have either started or earned substantial time.
Ojoh and Sendelbach may be favorites at linebacker, looking to make up for the production of departing All-Big Sky linebacker Ketner Kupp.
A void will be felt in the middle with the loss of nose tackle and Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tiuli. All-Big Sky defensive end Keenan Williams also exhausted his eligibility.
Defensive ends Mitch Johnson (All-Big Sky) and Jim Townsend both return after big years. In the middle, Dylan Ledbetter (All-Big Sky honorable mention), Keith Moore and Darnell Hogan are also back.
The Eagles also need to replace All-American kicker and punter Roldan Alcobendas, who shattered EWU records.