CHENEY — Of the 26 seniors who dot Eastern Washington’s roster, 17 are starters on its preseason depth chart.
The experience-rich Eagles didn’t bring in a transfer this summer to fill a particular need, a sign that Aaron Best and Co. believe in their few unproven commodities.
EWU has five total transfers, the least of the Big Sky Conference members. Its best players have often taken the redshirt route and worked up the rungs.
Few rookies are expected to carve out substantial roles this fall, but a trio of redshirt freshmen – receiver Andrew Boston, defensive end Mitchell Johnson and offensive tackle Matt Shook – have received plenty of first-team reps this week.
Boston, last season’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, has swiftly ascended in a deep position group, displaying sure hands, crisp routes and athleticism.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound target wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of redshirting when arriving from Puyallup’s Emerald Ridge High School last summer, but now he’s glad he did.
“It was really irritating at first. When you come in, you want to play,” said Boston, who hauled in 69 catches for 859 yards and 13 touchdowns as a high school senior. “Part of maturing was realizing what was best for me, and that was to redshirt.”
A silver lining for Boston last fall was routinely locking up with EWU’s first-team secondary. There were growing pains, he said, but the big plays he had against the Eagles’ decorated corners boosted his confidence.
“Coming off a redshirt year I feel like I had a lot of time to develop, a lot of time to learn the speed of the game,” he said. “All of those scout reps really helped me, because I went up against the first-team (defense). I am expecting big things for myself this season.”
Boston, who said his favorite route is a 15-yard dig, likes the different skill sets of his fellow receivers:
“We have a very diverse group, guys who can do a bunch of different things. Guys that are fast, guys that are big. We’re good together and all get along.”
On the other side of the football, Johnson, last year’s Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year, has impressed at both defensive end and at the Buck linebacker, a linebacker-defensive end hybrid position.
Working on the opposite edge of returning starter Keenan Williams, Johnson hopes to contribute to a defensive line that had trouble applying consistent pressure last season.
He and senior Nick Foerstel have the chore of supplanting Albert Havili, a rookie for the San Diego Chargers.
“I think I have a good understanding of both Buck and defensive end,” Johnson said. “I think that helps me get on the field more and not limiting myself to one position.”
Johnson, a West Linn, Oregon, product, was named the to the Oregonian’s All-6A team at linebacker, but his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame has allowed him to put his hand on the ground.
He said he gained 15 pounds in the offseason and is thankful he used his redshirt year.
“I think everyone wants to come in and be a true freshman, but coach redshirted me and it was the best thing to ever happen to me,” Johnson said. “I had a chance to put on weight, get stronger and start to know the playbook. Now I feel like an experienced veteran.”
The offseason retirement of left tackle Brett Thompson has led to some shuffling of bodies on the Eagles’ seasoned offensive line. Shook, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound Graham-Kapowsin graduate, is listed as a second-string left tackle on the preseason depth chart, but has been seeing time with the first-team.
Another redshirt freshman among preseason camp’s first-teamers is Trevor Bowens, a transfer from Utah State.
EWU, ranked No. 9 in the STATS FCS preseason poll, opens its season Sept. 1 at home against NCAA II power Central Washington.