July 7, 2006
After two productive seasons as underclassmen, Eastern Washington University offensive linemen Matt Alfred and Rocky Hanni have been selected as pre-season All-Americans by The Sports Network and its NCAA Division I-AA executive director Matt Dougherty.
Alfred, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound guard from Gig Harbor, Wash. (Gig Harbor HS '03) was selected to the first team. The 6-5, 290-pound Hanni earned honorable mention, and is from Sumner, Wash. (Sumner HS '03). The Eagles open the season Thursday, Aug. 31 at Oregon State.
Alfred was a first team All-America and All-Big Sky pick in 2005 after helping the Eagles rank fourth nationally in total offense with an average of 477.8 yards per game. He has started as either a guard or tackle in Eastern's last 22 games the past two seasons as EWU has won a share of two Big Sky Conference titles, made two appearances in the I-AA Playoffs and has a 16-9 record.
As a freshman in 2004, Hanni was the first-ever offensive lineman to win Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors. The 6-5, 290-pound Hanni also earned All-America honors that season and has started all 23 games as an Eagle. He moved from tackle to guard as a sophomore, but is expected to return to tackle in 2006.
With that duo leading the way, the Eagles are hoping -- and even needs -- its offensive line to be the strength of the team in 2006. The Eagles lost Payton Award-winning quarterback Erik Meyer as well as four receivers that combined for 503 catches for 7,858 yards and 74 touchdowns in their careers.
Besides Alfred and Hanni, the Eagles return two other offensive linemen -- center Chris Carlsen and tackle Zach Wasielewski -- who have significant starting experience. Those four players all started at least six games in 2005, and have a combined 67 starts between them. And all four of them were just second-year players in the Eagle program last season and return in 2006 as just juniors.
Plus, All-Big Sky second team defensive lineman Harrison Nikolao will move full-time to the offensive line after seeing some action there as a sophomore in 2004. He has started 24 games on defense for EWU.
"Our offensive line has to get better," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff. "There are some returning players there and some depth, but we'll see who emerges and see if we really make the progress we need to make in the offensive line. Throughout the year we weren't consistent enough and it wasn't up to the level we expect in our program at that position, including the tight end position."
The bottom line is finding a more productive offensive line, and one that can avoid allowing 53 sacks as it did in 12 games last season. Eastern averaged just 136.2 rushing yards per game last season, but a year earlier a more experienced unit allowed only 36 sacks and averaged 184.4 rushing yards.
"We were very blessed to have a player like Erik who could escape a lot of pressure," said Wulff. "You aren't always going to have that. It comes back to our offensive line and running the football. We have to run the ball better than we have, and that will help our offensive line in our pass protection too. We have to get back to some of that."
The biggest reason the Eagles hope for improved production at offensive line is to take advantage of a quartet of experienced running backs -- including a pair who burst onto the scene in 2005. Senior Ryan Cole, who transferred last year from Oregon State, earned second team All-Big Sky honors after rushing for 879 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Dale Morris added 310 yards and a touchdown in nine games in his Eagle debut.
Also back are a pair of veterans in juniors Toke Kefu and Dezmon Cole. Kefu, who still has a redshirt year to use, rushed for 345 yards and four touchdowns in 2004 and added 154 yards last season. Dezmon Cole had 56 as a freshman in 2003, then had 311 and three touchdowns as a sophomore before redshirting in 2005.
"If you're strong in your offensive and defensive lines, then you always have the chance to compete," explained Wulff. "With that being said, we have a chance. We have enough experienced and talented players back, and we have some players in key roles that will have to be playmakers for us."