As Eastern Washington’s football team opens its preseason camp this week with its first full-squad practice on Saturday, much of the national attention is, for a change, focused elsewhere.
No Eagles players landed on major award watchlists or on national preseason teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. Just a pair of EWU’s players are listed among the Big Sky’s all-conference preseason teams.
Eastern was picked by media and coaches to finish sixth in the Big Sky standings this fall, behind Montana, Montana State, Weber State, Sacramento State and UC Davis. That’s the lowest the conference’s expectations have been at Eastern – at least as far as preseason polls go – in at least 13 years.
Considering this is a program that has one national title, six conference championships and three Walter Payton Award winners over that span, the external expectations certainly are lower for this Eagles team as it prepares for the 2022 fall season.
But there are many variables that factor into a preseason poll, said Eagles coach Aaron Best, who is 41-17 in five seasons as Eastern’s head coach.
And in any case, Best added, “You can’t simulate Saturdays.”
The biggest question facing Eastern, at least outwardly, is whether it has the program’s next great quarterback already in Cheney. Senior Gunner Talkington is the de facto starter, having backed up reigning Payton Award winner Eric Barriere the last two seasons, but his sample size is still limited to 64 collegiate passing attempts.
Still, Talkington has the experience to be the next man up in the eyes of junior receiver Freddie Roberson.
“The quarterbacks in our room, they had the (opportunity) to learn from Eric (Barriere) over the couple years he was here,” Roberson said. “A guy like Gunner, he’s primed to have a really big year. I don’t want to count out any of the other quarterbacks, but he has the experience playing behind Eric. He knows the whole playbook. He played behind the best quarterback in the country, so he knows what it takes to play at that level.”
Another factor in the Eagles’ poll standing could be their daunting schedule. After opening the season at home against fellow FCS school Tennessee State, which finished 5-6 a year ago, Eastern’s next four games include two dates at FBS teams Oregon and Florida and then matchups with three of the teams predicted to finish above them in the Big Sky: Montana State, Weber State and Sacramento State.
And while Eastern’s only preseason all-conference selections are sophomore receiver Efton Chism III and junior defensive lineman Joshua Jerome, the league’s early favorites enter the season studded with more recognized stars.
Montana has five players on the preseason all-conference teams. Montana State, the FCS runner-up last season, has seven. UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. is the preseason pick for offensive MVP, and Sacramento State has five all-conference picks without even including its returning starting quarterback, Jake Dunniway.
None of those factors are guarantees for a certain outcome, of course. But they do lay out a season where the external bar for the Eagles – who won 10 games last season, including one in the playoffs – will be lower than it has been in some time, even if the internal one is still at the level of winning not just a Big Sky championship but, as Roberson said, a national title as well.
And regardless, Best is excited about the month of August, considering all the “posts” this team now finds itself in: post-COVID, post-playoffs, and post-Barriere. He said the team has, in the last six months, handled those challenges well, and he is looking forward to the trials of this football season.
“Inevitably, we know this game is wicked. It’s going to present some very, very big challenges inside the game, outside the game, midweek,” Best said. “We’re a mature ball club, a close ball club, and we’re a ball club that’s committed to each other.”