The Easterner

Gage Gubrud, EWU offense primed for productive 2018

Senior+quarterback+Gage+Gubrud+waits+to+call+for+the+ball+at+the+Red-White+game+on+April+28.+Gubrud+is+entering+his+third+season+under+center+for+the+Eagles.+%7C+Mckenzie+Ford+for+The+Easterner
Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud waits to call for the ball at the Red-White game on April 28. Gubrud is entering his third season under center for the Eagles. | Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud waits to call for the ball at the Red-White game on April 28. Gubrud is entering his third season under center for the Eagles. | Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud waits to call for the ball at the Red-White game on April 28. Gubrud is entering his third season under center for the Eagles. | Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner

By Michael Brock, Sports Editor

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After being snubbed from the FCS playoffs in November, the EWU football team has a new motto for the upcoming season: Leave No Doubt.

In 2017, the Eagles went 7–4 overall (6–2 in Big Sky Conference) and had the sixth-ranked FCS offense in terms of overall yards per game.

Still, when the 24-team postseason bracket was announced, EWU was left off.

“Looking back to last year how we didn’t make playoffs — we just don’t want to leave it up to [the committee],” junior running back Antoine Custer Jr. said during media availability on April 11. “We want to just take control of that and get there on our own.”

Favorably for the Eagles, they have 17 returning starters, including nine on the offensive side, to get the job done.

Quarterback

Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud, who is entering his third season under center, is the most notable returner on offense for the Eagles.

After setting the FCS record for passing yards and scoring 53 total touchdowns in 2016, Gubrud had what some might consider a “down” season in 2017. After being named a co-MVP in the Big Sky Conference in 2016, Gubrud made the second-team last season. He registered over 50 less total yards per game and 0.6 less touchdowns per contest.

But without prolific wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill last year, the Eagles put more of an emphasis on the run game and took the ball out of Gubrud’s hands often.

Gubrud still led the FCS in total offense per game and was fourth in passing yards in 2017 despite a slight drop in efficiency.

The next step for the senior quarterback is to continue honing his timing and making quicker reads.

“Gage’s decision making has gotten better,” offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder told The Easterner in a phone interview. “There were times last year when he needed to either tuck the ball or throw it away and he got into some forced throw situations. He tried to work on that this spring and he has made progress.”

Sophomore Eric Barriere will back up Gubrud.

Offensive Line

On the offensive line, four of the five positions are back, with left tackle being the only open spot not returning. The returning starters include: senior center Spencer Blackburn, junior left guard Tristen Taylor, senior right guard Jack Hunter and junior right tackle Chris Schlichting. With a multitude of veterans on the line, the running back corps is ready for a fruitful season.

Running Backs

Junior running back Antoine Custer Jr. is back for his second season as the starter. In 2017, Custer had 1,052 all-purpose yards (776 rushing) and 12 touchdowns en route to second-team All-Big Sky honors.

Senior running back Sam McPherson, who is coming off an injury, registered 729 total yards (477 rushing) a season ago. McPherson didn’t play in any of the three spring games, but Reeder said he was participating in drills and will be ready to go when practice begins again in August. Both Custer and McPherson are capable pass-catching backs, which helps keep the defense on its heels.

“We’re pass first, but we’re not pass only,” second-year head coach Aaron Best told The Easterner in a sit-down interview. “If we have a hot hand in the running back position or the run game is going as planned or better than planned then we’ll lean on that throughout the course of a game.”

To Best’s point, the EWU offense was much more balanced in 2017 compared to the prior year in terms of handing the ball off. In 2016, only five non-Gubrud Eagles rushed for over 50 yards in a single game. Last season, it happened 13 times.

“We have such a dynamic running back group,” said Reeder. “There’s never a wrong time to really give that ball to one of those backs and the ball doesn’t have to be forced down the field.”

Juniors Tamarick Pierce and Dennis Merritt also return.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Even with Nic Sblendorio graduated, the Eagles have a strong group of receivers coming back.

Senior wide receiver Nsimba Webster (59 receptions, 693 yards, five touchdowns in 2017) is expected to be Gubrud’s top target, while fellow senior Zach Eagle (24 receptions, 286 yards) should play a major role as well. Other returners include junior Jayson Williams and senior Terence Grady, who is returning from an injury which kept him out most of last season.

“It’s such a different flavor than what it was in 2016,” said Reeder. “We’re a different offense, we’re a different group of personnel. We’re going to have the ability to be extremely multiple and Gage needs to be a point guard and just distribute the ball to the correct place at the right time.”

As for tight ends, junior Jayce Gilder is slated to be the starter, with sophomore Talolo Limu-Jones backing him up.

Senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas, who holds the school record for consecutive made extra points at 85, will be back for the Eagles after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA on April 6.

“We’re ahead of where we were 12 months ago,” said Reeder. “We’re not where we need to be yet. There’s still some growing to do and that’s what the summer’s for.”

Reeder said that “a lot of the guys” will be on campus working out and throwing together until practice starts up again in August, and that the next couple months is the time when chemistry is built.

“I’m happy to see their willingness to learn and their willingness to work especially with such an older group of guys,” said Reeder. “They’re eager and they’re hungry to really see what they can do this year.”

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About the Writer
Michael Brock, Editor in Chief

Michael Brock is The Easterner’s Editor in Chief. Brock, a senior studying journalism, was born and raised in Petersburg, Alaska. He is in his second year with the Easterner and has plans to pursue a career in sports writing after college.

Email: [email protected]

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Gage Gubrud, EWU offense primed for productive 2018