HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs, with three teams being released each day from June 17 to July 28. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 1-4. Today, we present … Eastern Washington.
We'll leave no stone left unturned when it comes to giving the FCS diehards all they could ask for this offseason. Learn about every program in the country, with HERO Sports.
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Eastern Washington (12-3 IN 2018)
Big Sky Conference (EWU finished T1st in 2018)
COACH: Aaron Best – At School: 3rd year (19 -7) Overall: Same
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 2018 (National Runner-up)
2018 OFFENSE: 43.1 ppg. (4th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 22.7 ppg. (27th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Sept. 14 @ Jacksonville State: This is a premier nonconference game in the FCS between two preseason Top 10 teams. On paper, this looks to be the most challenging FCS game of the year for the Eagles. Because their Big Sky schedule is quite favorable, this game will likely give us the best gauge on how good the 2019 Eagles are.
SUM IT UP: "Eastern Washington Football Ready for Return to National Prominence" — That was our headline for last year's EWU preview.
"The Eagles win the Big Sky, earn a high playoff seed and return to Frisco for a shot at the national title. They have the experience, talent and motivation to do so." — That was under our Best Case-Scenario section.
Not to brag but we ended up being pretty spot on with the Eagles last year at this time. What we didn't foresee was the amount of injuries EWU would suffer and how new players would step into huge roles in the run to Frisco. But that's especially important right now as we look at the 2019 season. The official team prospectus lists nine total starters returning — five on offense and four on defense — but there are a handful of other players who have had some starting experience here and there or have played big minutes due to those injuries.
Despite losing a class of 25 seniors and 15 players who have earned All-Big Sky honors, the Eagles have plenty of experience coming back.
Let's start with the offense, which has a chance to be extremely explosive. One of those players to step up due to injury is quarterback Eric Barriere, who is a HERO Sports Preseason First Team All-American. He'll be a top quarterback in the country and will have what could be one of the best offensive lines in the FCS. Four guys up front have significant starting experience. Spencer Blackburn, a preseason Second Team All-American, and Kaleb Levao received sixth years of eligibility and are back for their second senior season. Chris Schlichting is set to be a four-year starter and Tristen Taylor started in 2016 and 2017 before having his 2018 season cut short because of a knee injury.
Some other playmakers outside of Barriere do need to step up. EWU's top rusher and pass catcher from 2018 are gone. But offensive skilled position players are never a concern in Cheney. Antoine Custer Jr. is a two-time All-Conference performer at running back and he, Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt combined for 1,521 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns last year. And keep an eye on Andrew Boston as the next big receiver for the Eagles. He was a 2018 HERO Sports Freshman All-American and caught 43 passes for 531 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Jayce Gilder is also a reliable target who had seven touchdown receptions in 2018.
It'll be key for the Eagles to continue progressing on defense. Last year's unit was tremendous, improving from 33.36 points allowed a game in 2017 to 22.67, and from 464.9 yards allowed per game to 392.5. EWU ranked second in the FCS with 34 forced turnovers. The Eagles have four full-time starters back on that side of the ball (DT Dylan Ledbetter, DL Jim Townsend, LB Chris Ojoh and safety Dehonta Hayes). Safeties Tysen Prunty and Calin Criner along with rover Kedrick Johnson also started some games. That's not to mention DL Mitchell Johnson, who served as a key backup and was a big part of the rotation. Johnson earned HERO Sports Freshman All-American honors with his 31 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Ojoh is EWU's top returning tackler after he had a breakthrough sophomore campaign with 105 tackles, which ranked second on the team in 2018. Overall, the Eagles have six of their top 11 tacklers back and three of their top four (Ojoh, Hayes and Criner).
OUR TAKE: We have EWU preseason ranked No. 7, which means we expect a quarterfinal appearance. But with their schedule and returning talent, there's a decent chance the Eagles get a Top 4 playoff seed and make a deeper run. They will be favored to win every game besides at FBS Washington. A road trip to Jacksonville State looks to be a 50/50 game on paper. But in the Big Sky, the Eagles avoid the three other playoff teams in 2018. It's a favorable schedule that could see an 11-1 overall record. Even with what's gone off of last year's team, expectations shouldn't lessen and the Eagles look to return to Frisco this season.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Jr./QB Eric Barriere (HERO Sports Preseason All-American First Team, 3,063 yards of total offense, 24 passing TDs, 8 rushing TDs)
THE FOUNDATION: Sr./OL Spencer Blackburn (Preseason All-American Second Team); Sr./OL Chris Schlichting (4-year starter); Sr./RB Antoine Custer Jr. (All-Big Sky HM, 625 yards rushing, 8 TDs); So./WR Andrew Boston (HERO Sports Freshman All-American, 43 catches for 531 yards and 4 TDs); Jr./LB Chris Ojoh (2nd leading tackler last year with 105); So./DL Mitchell Johnson (HERO Sports Freshman All-American, 31 tackles, 8 TFLs and 4.5 sacks); Sr./DB Dehonta Hayes (87 tackles)
TOP NEWCOMER: So./DB Dean Sise (Transferred from Navy and redshirted at EWU in 2018, was able to play in the national title game and played on ST)
THE QUOTE: "Our returning players will be hungry to get back to that stage, and we're going to get after it." — Head Coach Aaron Best said
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's EWU Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The Big Sky
Cal Poly | EWU | Idaho | Idaho St
Montana | Montana St | NAU | UNC
Portland St | Sac St | SUU | UC Davis | Weber St
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast