When Eastern Washington set the program’s single-season rushing record a year ago, it was behind one of the savviest offensive lines in the Football Championship Subdivision.
It was just as efficient in pass protection, helping the balanced Eagles (4,084 yards passing, 3,839 rushing) reach their second national title game this decade.
Now it’s fourth-ranked EWU’s most experienced and decorated position group.
With a a pair of sixth-year seniors in All-American center Spencer Blackburn (6-foot-2, 290 pounds) and All-Big Sky right guard Kaleb Levao (6-4, 310), and fifth-year senior and All-Big Sky right tackle Chris Schlichting (6-5, 295), Eastern hopes to rack up gaudier numbers in 2019. The return of 6-6, 325-pound left tackle Tristen Taylor — an All-Big Sky honorable mention in 2017 before going down with a knee injury in Week 3 last season — is also a boon, as he’s expected to wall off gifted quarterback Eric Barriere’s blind side.
Will Gram (6-4, 300), another fifth-year senior, has registered plenty of snaps over the last four seasons, but is vying for his first starting job at left guard. He’s No. 1 on the preseason depth chart.
Another experienced, big-bodied blocker who lines up in various formations is fifth-year senior tight end Jayce Gilder (6-4, 225), who’s hauled in 29 career passes, 10 of which were touchdowns. But third-year head coach Aaron Best — formerly the Eagles’ offensive line coach — said Monday that nobody has cemented their place up front.
“You’re still earning your spot, and I think that’s the mentality we’ve presented over a decade,” Best said. “Nobody feels like anything is deserved. They earn everything.”
Best’s former pupil, offensive line coach and ex-EWU center Jase Butorac, is obviously working with a talented group.
But how talented? Plenty of impressive offensive fronts have come through EWU in the 2010s.
“I don’t like to compare (to past offensive lines), but, tackle to tackle we could be pretty special,” Best said. “I think experience plays in that, but you know as well I do, (your group) can have a sophomore a slump.
“We’ll be fine up front. But the challenge is to develop (the backups), because we usually play eight to 10 guys a game.”
Most of the second-stringers on EWU’s preseason depth chart are young, including redshirt freshmen Brad Godwin (left tackle), and Charlie Baumann (right guard), and sophomores Wyatt Musser (left guard) and Matt Shook (right tackle).
Junior center Conner Crist was expected to replace Blackburn this season before Blackburn was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA earlier this year.
Schlichting, the lone EWU player named the preseason All-Big Sky first team last month, dubbed this offensive line one of the best in the country.
Cohesion has a lot to with that, he said.
“We don’t even have to make calls on certain things because we know what the next to you is doing,” Schlichting said. “(Levao) and I played next to each other all season last year. There’s this unspoken communication that makes life easier on the line.”
Schlichting said he expects the same potent pass-run balance as last season with new offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, the former Central Washington head coach who replaced Bodie Reeder, now at North Texas.
On an offensive line with players who’ve missed substantial time during their careers with injuries, Schlichting said he hopes his good health also stays the same.
Since being named a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2016, Schlichting has started each game of his career (40) and wants to add to that total.
“It’s awesome, something a lot of people have tried to do,” Schlichting said. “But it’s a blessing that I’ve been healthy and able to go as long as I have.”