Storylines from camp: EWU football still has some questions, but running game and secondary look like strengths

In wrapping up its April practices, the Eastern Washington football team now gets a couple weeks to go home and refresh.

But as cornerback Demetrius Crosby Jr. said, “it’s quick.”

“Spring’s been good. We’re just constantly getting better,” Crosby said after the Red side defense received the Golden Eagle award in the spring game Saturday. “I feel like we (improved) every day and (took) the next steps to be a great defense.”

Eastern headed into spring camp with questions about quarterback, linebacker and at a handful of other specific spots where the Eagles will need to replace starters from last season’s 10-3 team that reached the second round of the FCS playoffs.

Head coach Aaron Best emphasized Saturday that practices in spring are different than practices in August. When the team returns to prepare for the season more imminently, the rhythms and intensities change some.

And questions remain. Here are some storylines that will carry into preseason practices, which begin in about in three months.

At QB: Talkington is current No. 1

Senior Gunner Talkington spent the last three seasons as Eric Barriere’s backup, but he’s never had the chance to be a full-time starter.

It appears to be his job to lose at this point, though Best left the door open for any of the team’s other four quarterbacks, who he didn’t officially list as No. 2, 3, 4 or 5, to win the No. 1 spot. All of them – senior Ryan Kelley, junior Simon Burkett, sophomore Trey Turner and redshirt freshman Kekoa Visperas – demonstrated the ability to move the ball during the spring, Best said.

Whomever ends up being the starter faces a daunting start to the season. After the home opener at Roos Field against fellow FCS team Tennessee State, the EWU schedule is: at Oregon, bye, home against FCS runner-up Montana State, at Florida, at Weber State, and then home against Big Sky regular-season champion Sacramento State.

The Eagles will probably run more

New offensive coordinator Jim Chapin demonstrated at his previous post, Division II Sioux Falls, a more balanced run-pass approach, and Eastern’s spring game matched up with that philosophy: the Red team that Chapin coordinated – and the side that won the Red-White game, 39-15 – ran 29 times and threw the ball 23.

Eastern’s roster also appears to be flush with young running backs to replace the production of Dennis Merritt and Tamarick Pierce. Best praised redshirt freshman Davante Smith on Saturday after his 124-yard performance, and the Eagles also will return contributors Justice Jackson and Micah Smith from last year’s team. Brandon Montoya and Tuna Altahir, two more redshirt freshmen, also had strong springs.

“I think we have got guys who are more built to run the ball,” Best said, “and not just the guys running the ball, but the guys blocking for the run. So I think that’s a good thing. We’ve got to be able to run the ball to throw the ball.”

That can certainly help relieve pressure from whomever plays quarterback – and also from a receiving corps that is reloading after graduating leaders Talolo Limu-Jones and Andrew Boston, who amassed a combined 2,091 receiving yards last season.

“Our room was so, so deep last year,” said sophomore receiver Nolan Ulm, who had 154 yards and two scores in the spring game. “We had six or seven guys who could get on the field and win the Big Sky championship. We lost two for sure, but we still have that core group. It’s been a lot of waiting, and honestly, we all came (to Eastern) knowing that was going to happen. We wanted to be around the best.”

Secondary looks to be a strength

Defensively, the Eagles lost two captain linebackers and the team’s top two tacklers in Jack Sendlebach and Ty Graham and are almost entirely replacing their production at that position.

But the other two units look much more familiar, with nearly every regular from the defensive line rotation returning. And aside from the loss of captain Calin Criner in the secondary, there are plenty of familiar faces on the back end of the defense as well.

Safeties Anthany Smith, Ely Doyle and Keshaun King all return after starting some games last season. Experienced players also return at cornerback, where Crosby in particular emerged this spring.

“He’s taken the next step,” Best said of Crosby. “He’s a guy we rely on. He really came into his own the last third of the season, (when) he made a ton of plays, and he has substantiated himself as a legitimate corner on our team and in this conference, and we expect big things out of him.”

Crosby, who will be a junior in the fall, will be part of a cornerback group that includes returning starters Tre Weed and Darrien Sampson (both juniors in the fall as well).

That could be crucial for a defense that will look entirely new at linebacker. But Best was optimistic about the defense’s middle group, specifically about sophomore Ahmani Williams, whom Best called the role model and leader of the linebackers, many of whom have been limited this spring by injury.

“At the end of the day, (the linebackers) didn’t feel sorry for themselves,” Best said. “We get some more bodies back in the fall. It’s a young group with a ton of room for growth, which is exciting. … We knew it was going to be a big step from four seniors to, really, let’s be honest, no seniors. … We love that challenge. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ll get there.”

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