With 24 letterwinners back, defense even more experienced than the offense
If you think the offense for the Eastern Washington University football team is experienced, try the defense.
While the offense returns a total of 20 letterwinners, the defense has 24 back in 2012. Other than losing a pair of key players in the secondary and three defensive linemen, the Eagles have depth galore throughout the defensive units.
“We are very solid at almost every position defensively from an experience standpoint,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We want to keep creating and building more depth, so there are going to be some young players who will add to our depth and create even more competition.”
Although also ravaged by injuries, there is definitely room for improvement after the Eagles ranked 101st out of 120 FCS schools in total defense, surrendering an average of 411.9 yards per game. Eastern allowed 213.2 yards rushing per game, and only 10 schools in FCS allowed more.
“The expectation is that we are going to be better in all areas defensively,” Baldwin said. “And there is no reason why we shouldn’t be.”
Eastern’s defensive line returns honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference end Paul Ena (6-2, 240), who finished his junior campaign in 2011 with 48 tackles and three sacks. Another end, senior Jerry Ceja, had a team-leading 5 1/2 sacks and finished with 21 tackles total.
Inside, senior Evan Cook (6-3, 280) and Washington transfer Andru Pulu (6-2, 290) are the top prospects to start at tackle. Cook had seven tackles in 2011 while Pulu sat out.
Other returning letterwinners along the defensive line include junior David Gaylord (6-4, 245), junior Will Katoa (6-0, 285), sophomore Evan Day (6-3, 245) and sophomore Dylan Zylstra (6-4, 225). Converted linebacker Jakob Pugsley (6-3, 240) is also now on the defensive line.
“We believe that the defensive line is a position where we are going to load up with very talented players and lots of bodies,” said Baldwin. “Year-in and year-out, you are only going to go as far as the groups up front are going to take you on both sides of the ball. If you have a lot of depth and great talent on the defensive line, it usually gives you more opportunities to win ballgames.”
Nine returning letterwinners are back at linebacker, led by Zach Johnson, a 2010 second team All-Big Sky Conference selection. He enters his senior season having started all 30 of the career games he has played, with current career totals of 260 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and 12 passes broken up.
However, because Johnson was lost early in the 2011 season, the returning starting linebackers are listed as junior Ronnie Hamlin, junior J.C. Agen and sophomore Cody McCarthy. Hamlin led the team with 85 tackles, McCarthy had 41 and Agen finished with 30. Johnson had 34 in four games.
Also returning is senior Grant Williams, who was third on the team with 61 tackles in 2011. Senior Tyler Washburn battled a knee injury and had only 20 tackles in 2011, but he finished his sophomore season with 54 and had 41 as a freshman in 2009.
The other returning letterwinners at linebacker are seniors Rusty Haehl, Chase King and Scott Burgett, and sophomore John Goldwire. They provide experience, especially on special teams.
“That’s another position where a lot of young players received the opportunity to play,” said Baldwin. “We expect that position to definitely perform at a much higher level than they did last year because of both the talent that is there and the experience that was gained by the younger players.”
In the secondary, Eastern is replacing a starting cornerback (Alden Gibbs) and one of three players who shared the starting safety positions last year (Matt Johnson, now with the Dallas Cowboys). Junior cornerback T.J. Lee III and safeties Jeff Minnerly and Allen Brown return to starting positions, but after that, Eastern is still determining the other five players who will see the majority of action for the Eagles and help contribute on special teams.
Minnerly, who has earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors each of the last two seasons, ranked second on the team with 77 tackles in 2011. He has also earned a variety of athletic and academic awards at Eastern, and the former quarterback enters his senior season with 127 total tackles, four interceptions, eight passes broken up, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss.
Brown, a junior in 2012, ranked fifth on the team with 51 tackles in 2011. Lee was a first team All-Big Sky selection a year ago, finishing the season with 48 tackles, a pair of interceptions and one pass broken up.
Other returning letterwinners in the secondary include junior Ronald Baines, sophomore Isaiah Jenkins and junior Bo Schuetzle. Several newcomers are expected to compete for playing time as well.
“The competition is going to be great on the back end,” said Baldwin. “We are still trying to find the 10 defensive backs who travel and help us on special teams. From there we’ll determine who is starting and rotating in. My answer heading into the summer might be a lot different as it will be in August. We’ll see how the players perform in the summer and in camp. But we have some definite experience and players coming back who have played a lot of football.”
Aug. 6 - 2012 Football Season Outlook: OVERVIEW . . . Rash of injuries in 2011 actually helps Eastern reload to form experienced team capable of contending for the Big Sky title and playoff berth
Aug 8 - 2012 Football Season Outlook: DEFENSE . . .With 24 letterwinners back, defense even more experienced than the offense