2017 EWU Football Preview

By Michael Brock and Logan Stanley

CHENEY, WA. — Coming off a devastating loss in the 2016 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoff semifinals versus Youngstown State – with a berth in the national championship game tantalizing close – the goal remains the same for the 2017 Eastern Eagles: a national title. But this season’s team will look a bit different, as a few key pieces have departed.

While reigning Big Sky offensive co-MVP Gage Gubrud is back at quarterback, three of Eastern’s wide receivers are now in the NFL (Cooper Kupp with the Los Angeles Rams, Kendrick Bourne with the San Francisco 49ers and Shaq Hill with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). The trio was a major component to the Eagles’ attack as they combined for 817 catches for 12,412 yards and 132 touchdowns in 160 games played (109 starts) during their time at Eastern.

In addition to those three, the defense is missing a couple vital contributors from last year’s rendition, as defensive lineman Samson Ebukam (71 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles) is a Los Angeles Ram and linebacker Miquiyah Zamora (109 total tackles) graduated in the spring.

On top of that, Beau Baldwin – head coach of nine seasons – left to take the offensive coordinator position at the University of California, Berkeley. He had a record of 85-32 while at EWU and the team won the Big Sky Conference title five times during his tenure. The Eagles also won the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship in 2010 under Baldwin.

Replacing the nine-year coach is Aaron Best, who has been a player or coach at Eastern every season since 1996, including the last nine as Baldwin’s offensive line coach. And though the defensive coaching staff remains largely intact, the Eagles have five new coaches on the offensive side, including: Bodie Reeder (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Jay Dumas (wide receivers), Jase Butorac (offensive line) and Kevin Maurice (running backs).

A glimpse at the roster

Even with the departures of Kupp, Bourne, Hill, Ebukam and Zamora, the Eagles are still in good shape heading into the 2017 season. 13 players were named to the All-Big Sky Conference teams in 2016, and six of them return.

Quarterback Gage Gubrud, center Spencer Blackburn and offensive tackle Tristen Taylor are the three returning All-Big Sky performers on offense, while cornerback Nzuzi Webster, safety Mitch Fettig and defensive nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli come back for the defense. In total, the team retains 51 letterwinners – 25 on offense, 22 on defense and four on special teams.

The most important one of those returners is undoubtedly Gubrud, who shined last year as a sophomore and a first-time starter. Not only did he set the FCS record for passing yards (5,160) for a single season, the McMinnville product also won FCS Player of the Year from the Touchdown Club of Columbus and shared Big Sky Conference MVP honors with Kupp.

Gubrud finished third in voting for the Walter Payton Award, was selected to six FCS All-America teams and broke 29 total records: three FCS, seven Big Sky and 19 EWU school records. But accolades aside, new coach Best says 2017 presents a new kind of challenge for the young quarterback.

“He’s a good player to have back,” said head coach Aaron Best of Gubrud. “He has a year under his belt and over-achieved last year – he belongs in the EKG (Eastern Kind of Guy) family. Nobody, including myself, would have said after a year of starting he would be where he is at… But now that the bar has been raised, now you have to raise it even higher… He’s put that stress on himself, and we love that. We like the challenge of competing at a higher level, and now the challenge is doing it in a leadership role on the field and in the locker room.”

Gubrud has been named a captain, a clear indication of his teammates’ trust. Along with the junior quarterback will be three seniors – defensive tackle Andre Lino, defensive end Albert Havili and wide receiver Nic Sblendorio.

Clearly, this rendition of the Eastern Eagles will have a mix of young blood and familiar faces. With week one against Texas Tech just days away, here is the team’s depth chart:

-Quarterback: Gage Gubrud (Jr.)
-Running back: Antoine Custer Jr. (Soph.)
-Wide receiver: Terence Grady (Jr.)
-Wide receiver: Nic Sblendorio (Sr.)
-Wide receiver: Nsimba Webster (Jr.)
-Tight end: Henderson Belk (Jr.)
-Left tackle: Chris Schlichting (Soph.)
-Left guard: Tristen Taylor (Soph.)
-Center: Spencer Blackburn (Jr.)
-Right guard: Matt Meyer (Jr.)
-Right tackle: Kaleb Levao (Jr.)

-Defensive end: Keenan Williams (Jr.)
-Defensive tackle: Andre Lino (Sr.)
-Defensive tackle: Jay-Tee Tiuli (Sr.)
-Defensive end: Albert Havili (Sr.)
-Outside linebacker: Ketner Kupp (Jr.)
-Middle linebacker: Kurt Calhoun (Jr.)
-Outside linebacker: Cole Karstetter (Jr.)
-Cornerback: Josh Lewis (Jr.)
-Cornerback: Nzuzi Webster (Jr.)
-Strong safety: Jake Hoffman (Sr.)
-Free safety: Mitch Fettig (Jr.)

Among those starters, there are:
-Six returners on offense and six on defense, plus the starting kicker, punter and long snapper. All six returners on offense were either freshmen or sophomore last season, while the returners on defense include three sophomores and three juniors.

Looking at the road ahead
The Eagles enter the season at No. 5 in the STATS preseason top-25 and No. 4 in the coaches poll. Like last year, the team will open up on the road against an FBS opponent. As you may remember, EWU rolled into Pullman, Washington to begin the 2016 season and left with the 45-42 upset victory over Washington State University. That game marked the beginning of Gubrud’s ascent, where he had a school-record 551 yards of total offense.

This season, the Eagles head to Lubbock, Texas to take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders in week one. Their opponent is coming off a 5-7 season, despite boasting one of the NCAA’s top passing offenses. The Red Raiders were led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, who was a first-round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs. Even with the talented playcaller, Texas Tech couldn’t overcome their porous defense, which finished last in the NCAA. That aspect of the matchup between the Eagles and Red Raiders will be something to watch for.

After the season opener against Texas Tech, the out-of-conference tour heads back to Cheney for a highly anticipated game against No. 2 ranked North Dakota State. Here’s the entire schedule (bold indicates home games):

Week 2: North Dakota St.
Week 3: at Fordham
Week 4: at Montana
Week 5: Sacramento St.
Week 6: at UC Davis
Week 7: Montana St.
Week 8: at Southern Utah
Week 9: Weber St.
Week 10: at North Dakota
Week 11: Portland St.

*Editor’s note: All quotes were gathered by EWU Athletics and from the EWU Athletics podcast.