Eastern Washington

EWU wide receivers are deep and confident — and they could hold the key for the Eagles against Griz

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The walls at the Inferno are plastered with their pictures. The record books at Eastern Washington are littered with their names.

Cooper Kupp. Kendrick Bourne. Shaq Hill. Brandon Kaufman. Nick Edwards. Nsimba Webster. Eric Kimble.

It’s an impressive list, a reminder that, for as much as the Eagles’ calling card in the last 20 years has been their quarterbacks — every starting EWU signal-caller dating back to Josh Blakenship in 2002 has won a Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year award — the tradition in Cheney is just as strong in the receiver room.

“We try to really hammer the tradition of the position here at Eastern Washington because it is different than any other spot,” EWU wide receivers coach Pat McCann said. “There’s a bunch of FCS programs around the country that have their niche, and wide receiver is Eastern Washington’s.”

Heading into Eastern’s attention-inhaling, nationally-televised game against Montana on Saturday, most of the eyes are on the matchup between the Eagles’ offense, which is No. 1 in the country in total offense, and Montana’s defense, which has given up just two touchdowns in three games.

Every breakdown of EWU’s offense starts, fairly, with senior quarterback Eric Barriere, who finished second in voting for the Walter Payton Award in the spring and is averaging nearly 450 total yards per game in the fall.

But just like always with the Eagles’ offense, a large part of their success is a talented, deep group of wide receivers.

Four games into the season, Eastern Washington has four receivers with at least 250 yards — senior Talolo Limu-Jones (345), freshman Efton Chism III (300), junior Andrew Boston (275) and sophomore Freddie Roberson (250).

Eastern Washington running back Dennis Merritt (44)/by Brooks Nuanez

Then there’s senior running back Dennis Merritt (13 catches for 159 yards) and senior Johnny Edwards IV, who has 153 yards on just five catches for a tidy average of 30.6 yards per reception.

“It’s more relaxed, like, it’s more chill. You don’t really have too much pressure on your shoulders,” Limu-Jones said. “When we go out there, I know that Andrew’s gonna have my back, or Fred or whoever it is. Next man up.”

“It’s unpredictable. You don’t know if you’re gonna be getting the ball, or if the guy next to you is gonna get the ball,” Johnny Edwards said. “But just running around, running plays that work and having a QB that can make stuff happen, it’s really fun and exciting.”

Those two words have defined the Eastern Washington offense since the mid-1990s, when Mike Kramer took over for Dick Zornes as head coach. The Eagles had scored over 300 points in a season eight times – and over 400 points just once – in their history before Kramer took the job in 1994. They went over 300 points in five of Kramer’s six years at the helm, headlined by a 481-point, 12-win season in 1997 that culminated in the first semifinal playoff run in program history — and the pace continued accelerating.

In Beau Baldwin’s nine-year tenure from 2008 to 2016, the fewest points EWU scored in a season was 323 in 2008, and the Eagles put up an eye-popping 618 points in 14 games in 2014.

EWU wide receiver Shaq Hill (1) with head coach Beau Baldwin/by EWU Athletics

“I think the biggest thing is not just that we throw the ball, but it’s just kind of everything, from the concepts we run, the routes guys get to run,” McCann said. “There’s nothing really off limits. We always joke about it, like, if you can find the play on Madden, it’s probably in our playbook.”

In the 20 years since the turn of the century, EWU has had receivers go over 1,200 yards in a season 13 times. Jeff Ogden set the school’s single-season record for receiving yards with 1,376 in 1997 under Kramer. Kimble broke it with 1,453 in 2005, and Kaufman set it out of reach with 1,850 in 2012, a mark that not even Kupp, who had three 1,600 yard seasons in four years from 2013 to 2016 and is now starring in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, could touch.

Kupp, Bourne and Hill, who all graduated after the 2016 season, are without doubt the greatest wide receiver trio in Big Sky history. All three played in the NFL. Kupp and Bourne, who’s now with the New England Patriots, are still starting in the league.

“When people leave … like, their body leaves but their work ethic and what they brought to the program never leaves,” Johnny Edwards said. “So there’s things that Cooper Kupp used to do that we still implement in the receiver room. Same with Shaq and Nsimba. It’s always a learning moment. We’re always building from the last, and I feel like that for our culture, everybody’s just getting better from the people in the past.”

Former Eastern Washington wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (11) is one of the best WRs in Big Sky history/by Ron Swords – EWU Athletics

This year’s group, with four leading receivers belonging to four different classes, is a perfect example of that progression, blocks being laid on top of the successes of players who came before.

Limu-Jones, the oldest, came to Cheney as a tight end and made his mark on special teams first, breaking out in 2019 with seven touchdowns and the second-highest yards-per-catch average in the country.

“He really enjoys playing football, and that’s the one thing that I would say, he brings some life to the group,” McCann said. “You know he’s excited to play football. … I think he’s kind of really embraced the mentality of being a little bit more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands.”

On the other side of the experience scale is freshman phenom Chism III, who’s the perfect example of how the shortened spring season helped young players. He had 23 catches for 267 yards in seven games in the spring. With the benefit of the experience, he’s already surpassed that yardage total in four games in the fall.

“He’s our young boy right now,” Limu-Jones said. “You really don’t know what to expect out of him, but Efton gives off a little bit of a Cooper Kupp vibe. You don’t like to be compared to Coop, but that’s what I give him.”

Boston has been a multiple-time all-Big Sky selection after starting 14 of 15 games on the Eagles’ run to the national championship in 2018 as a redshirt freshman.

“We both have a shot at the league. When I look at Boston, I look at it like it’s another me out there,” Limu-Jones said. “He makes plays, he takes it off of people’s heads, you know?”

Roberson was second-team all-conference in the spring.

“We call him Freaky Fred, because there’s nothing, athletically, that he can’t do,” McCann said. “He’s super talented, but I think my favorite part about Freddie is his focus. You know he wants to be great at what he does. He’s out there pre-practice kind of going through footwork, visualization stuff.”

That group is Eastern Washington’s best chance to counterpunch Montana’s ferocious defense on Saturday.

Former Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp/ By Randy Cahalan, for Skyline Sports

A degenerate gambler would be in heaven betting on the play calls the Griz run out of their 3-3-5 defense — blitz, blitz, blitz. Montana brings pressure constantly, neurotically, inevitably.

That leaves the Griz corners in one-on-one coverage on the outside. So far nothing — not Washington’s Power 5 stars, or Western Illinois’ All-American receiver Dennis Houston, or Cal Poly’s clever tunnel screens — has been able to make Montana pay in that matchup, and so the Griz have kept blitzing.

If they can win one-on-one against Montana’s defensive backs enough, Eastern Washington’s receivers could twist the Grizzlies’ defense completely out of shape and force Montana DC Kent Baer to back off the pressure — not to mention score a lot of points.

If they can’t, Montana will stifle Eastern’s offense and tee off on Barriere.

With the confidence of history behind them, the latest edition of Eastern Washington’s stacked receiver room thinks they have the upper hand in the game’s biggest matchup.

“We know what to expect,” Limu-Jones said. “It doesn’t matter what you throw at us, you’re gonna have to game plan for more than just one thing. They love to game plan for multiple things, but going against us, we know what we are.”


About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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