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Starting running back, backup quarterback are positions up for grabs for Eagles

April 1, 2019

Eastern Washington returns a heap of talent and experience from last season’s FCS runner-up team, including a decorated offensive line and one of the most dynamic FCS quarterbacks in the country in junior Eric Barriere.

Third-year head coach Aaron Best and his new-look staff return a combined 48 lettermen, many who played substantial roles in a 2018 season that saw the Eagles shred (272 passing yards per game), run through (255 rushing yards per game) and shut down (16.9 points allowed per game in Big Sky play) most of their opposition.

But a few question marks still loom in Cheney as EWU begins spring football practice Tuesday.

Who will back up Barriere?

If not for the swift emergence of Barriere, a backup until Week 6, All-America quarterback Gage Gubrud’s broken toe would have likely derailed what turned out to be the second-best season in program history.

Barriere (3,249 total career yards, 34 touchdowns) is now a proven commodity. Gubrud is now a graduate transfer QB at Washington State after sitting out 10 games at EWU in 2018, recently regaining his senior season after being granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA.

So who steps in if Barriere, a shifty, hard-running junior who endures plenty of contact, gets shaken up – or worse?

Gunner Talkington has the most experience, but the 5-foot-10 sophomore has all of 12 pass attempts, mostly in blowout wins. Freshmen Simon Burkett (6-3) and Michael Taras (6-2) redshirted last season and enter the spring more physically developed.

The Eagles welcome two more QBs in August with incoming freshmen Trey Turner (Pittsburg, California) and Kellen Kranc (Enumclaw, Washington).

Can the Eagles reload at cornerback?

EWU graduates all four of its primary cornerbacks from last season: Josh Lewis, D’Londo Tucker, Nzuzi Webster and Brandon Montgomery helped the Eagles break up a school-record 70 passes and totaled 22 interceptions.

Sophomore Anfernee Gurley sat out last season due to a knee injury, but in 2017 he was among the Eagles’ leading tacklers from his nickelback position.

What will EWU’s new coordinators bring?

Offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder and defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding left Cheney in the offseason for bigger schools and bigger paychecks, Schmedding to Boise State and Reeder to North Texas.

Will new EWU defensive coordinator Eti Ena, promoted from defensive line coach, change much from the Eagles’ previous 4-2-5 scheme?

Ian Shoemaker, the Eagles’ new offensive coordinator, spent the past five years as head coach at Central Washington, which had one of the most potent and balanced offenses at the NCAA Division II level.

What wrinkles will Shoemaker bring to EWU, where he inherits Barriere, four offensive lineman who’ve earned All-Big Sky Confernce honors, and a load of experienced and productive receivers and running backs?

Who replaces Alcobendas?

Eastern Washington didn’t just graduate the best kicker in program history, but also the best kicker in all of non-FBS football.

All-America kicker and punter Roldan Alcobendas – the winner of the Freddie Mitchell Award – was EWU’s all-time leader in kicking points (320), didn’t miss a field-goal attempt in 2018 (16 for 16) and often pinned offenses deep in their own territory (44.9 yards per punt).

Alcobendas did the jobs of two players last season, so who will those two be?

Who will emerge as the No. 1 ballcarrier?

Running back Sam McPherson had one of the best single-season rushing marks in program history last season (1,510 yards, 13 touchdowns).

Now that McPherson has exhausted his eligibility, who will be the primary ballcarrier for the running-back-by-committee Eagles?

Senior scatback Antoine Custer was slowed down by injury at the beginning and end of 2018. Bruising senior Tamarick Pierce was a load before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the FCS semifinals last season.

The Eagles bring back 1,521 and 18 touchdowns worth of production last season with the return of Custer, Pierce and Dennis Merritt, but who will be the most reliable of the group?