Eastern Washington wide receiver Efton Chism III, a Monroe High School graduate. (Photo provided by Eastern Washington University)

Eastern Washington wide receiver Efton Chism III, a Monroe High School graduate. (Photo provided by Eastern Washington University)

Former local standouts hope to lead Eastern to national title

With Efton Chism III, Josh Jerome and Anthany Smith helping lead the way, the Eagles begin their quest for a crown.

In 2018, the Eastern Washington University football team played for the FCS national championship. So it’s a bold statement to say this year’s team is better.

“I can say honestly that yes, I think this team is better than the 2018 team,” said redshirt junior safety and Mariner High School graduate Anthany Smith, who played in that 2018 championship game, which was won by North Dakota State 38-24. “It’s just the brotherhood we have, everybody is locked in, there are no people who don’t want to be here. It’s all on the table and we’re all-in.”

Smith is one of three Snohomish County natives who start for the Eagles (9-2), who open the FCS playoffs Saturday when they host the Northern Iowa Panthers (6-5) in a first-round game at 1 p.m. in Cheney. The others are redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Josh Jerome and freshman wide receiver Efton Chism III, both of whom graduated from Monroe High School.

And the Eagles aren’t content with being one of the 24 teams that were selected for the playoffs, their aspirations go above and beyond.

“The goal is a national championship,” Chism said. “We have a great team, we’ve been preaching it all year, and that’s the goal.”

However far the Eagles ultimately march, the trio of Smith, Jerome and Chism will be heavily involved.

Smith came into the season as the most accomplished of the three, as the 5-foot-11, 190-pound former walk-on was named first-team All-Big Sky last season. However, he was also the last to get on the field this season, as he missed the first seven games recovering from an injury suffered midway through last season that eventually required surgery to remove the sesamoid bone from his left foot.

There was concern Smith wouldn’t be able to play this season, but his recovery went faster than expected and he played in Eastern’s final four regular season games, recording 32 tackles.

“I feel good,” Smith said. “At first I was a little bit hesitant getting back into it, I didn’t want to re-tear the ligaments in my toe, so the first game or two I was a little bit careful with it. But now the confidence is there, and when I step out there I have that savage mentality.”

Meanwhile, Jerome has been an anchor of Eastern’s defense all season long. The 6-foot-1, 280-pounder ranks fourth on the team with 50 tackles, including a team-leading 13 for loss. And despite being an interior lineman, he’s been the Eagles’ most effective pass rusher as he leads the team with 6.5 sacks.

“I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve watched more and more film, and I’ve seen what moves work against certain offensive linemen,” Jerome explained about his effectiveness in pass rushing. “Also, playing basketball in high school helped. It upped my game with my side-to-side movements, which helps with rushing the passer.”

On the other side of the ball, Chism has been a breakout performer. The 6-foot, 200-pounder has been one of record-setting quarterback Eric Barriere’s top weapons, catching 46 passes for 677 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns.

“We have this thing among the receivers where we say, ‘The ball finds energy,’” Chism said about his penchant for finding the end zone. “Eric Barriere does such a great job of eluding pressure that sometimes I’ll just run around and he’ll find me. He’s able to extend plays and I just run and get the ball.”

Eastern could have a grievance about not being one of the eight teams seeded for the playoffs, thus earning a first-round bye. The Eagles are ranked No. 4 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25, No. 6 in the FCS Coaches Poll, and they have two wins against fellow playoff teams — including a victory over sixth-seeded Montana, which did receive a bye.

However, while all three said they thought Eastern deserved a bye, none of them expressed any resentment about not receiving one.

“Yeah, I feel like we should have gotten a bye, but at the end of the day I’m just grateful to be in the playoffs,” Jerome said. “You can’t control everything with how you want it to go. I’m just thankful that we’re in the position we’re in now.”

That position has the Eagles playing a home game against a Northern Iowa team that’s better than its record indicates. The Panthers are a perennial playoff program, their five losses came at the hands of four playoff teams along with FBS Iowa State, and they beat Big Sky champion Sacramento State early in the season. So the Eagles aren’t taking Northern Iowa lightly.

“They’re a good team,” Chism said. “I think their best trait is that they all play hard. We’re going to have to be able to out-physical them and play harder, because it comes down to having that heart. We’ll see who has that heart for all four quarters.”

Snohomish County Eagles

Six members of the Eastern Washington University football team, which begins the FCS playoffs when the Eagles host Northern Iowa in a first-round game at 1 p.m. Saturday in Cheney, graduated from Snohomish County High Schools. Here’s a capsule look at their contributions:

Efton Chism III

Efton Chism.

High school: Monroe

Position: Wide receiver

This season: The freshman has developed into one of Eastern’s biggest offensive weapons. He’s caught 46 passes for 677 yards, both of which rank third among the Eagles, and his nine receiving touchdowns lead the team. He also has two carries for nine yards and has even made four tackles.

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

Josh Jerome

Josh Jerome.

High school: Monroe

Position: Defensive tackle

This season: The redshirt sophomore has been the anchor of Eastern’s defensive line. He ranks fourth on the team with 50 tackles, he leads the team in both tackles for loss (13) and sacks (6.5), and he’s also forced three fumbles.

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

Anthany Smith

Anthany Smith.

High school: Mariner

Position: Safety

This season: After missing Eastern’s first seven games because of a foot injury the redshirt junior, who was a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, returned to the starting lineup for the Eagles’ final four games, recording 32 tackles.

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

Keshaun King

Keshaun King.

High school: Marysville Pilchuck

Position: Defensive back

This season: The redshirt junior, who was a walk-on his first four seasons in the program, was placed on scholarship just before the season began. He’s appeared in 10 games as a reserve defensive back and special teams player, recording 24 tackles.

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

Isaiah Lewis

Isaiah Lewis.

High school: Monroe

Position: Running back

This season: The redshirt sophomore has appeared in nine games as a reserve and ranks fourth on the team in rushing with 186 yards on 28 carries with one touchdown. He’s also caught three passes for 40 yards.

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

— — — — — —

Emmanuel Osuoha

Emmanuel Osuoha.

High school: Archbishop Murphy

Position: Defensive end

This season: The redshirt sophomore has appeared in one game without recording a stat.

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