EWU spring football: Eagles count on experienced returners to remold defensive line
Even in April, Eastern Washington defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer is in midseason form.
Every practice is high intensity, with not a second to lose – and Sawyer wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m having fun, and this is a great group of kids to coach,” said Sawyer, now in his seventh year at Eastern. “They had a great winter, and they showed up stronger and being coachable.”
Good thing: The Eagles must replace three starters on the defensive line, including run-stuffing tackles Andru Pulu and Will Katoa, plus end Anthony Larry.
But the former backups come loaded with experience, enough so that Sawyer believes that “where we are as a program, we’re reloading every year.”
Part of the credit goes to Sawyer and defensive coordinator John Graham, who rotate up to 10 linemen every game.
“Even in a year you lose two or three starters, you still have eight or nine who’ve played a lot – and not just played, but played at a high level,” head coach Beau Baldwin said.
Here’s a look at how the Eagles shape up this spring on the defensive line:
Dylan Zylstra, a senior-to-be from Kent, Wash., has packed on 15 pounds as he moves into a probable starting role in the middle of the line.
That puts him at 6-foot-4, 280 – still about 25 pounds lighter than either Pulu or Katoa – but Zylstra makes up for that with better mobility.
“He’s the heart of the ‘D-line’ and he’s at his best right now,” said Sawyer, noting Zylstra’s weight gain during the offseason.
“We have a lot of guys who have something to prove, and we have a chip on our shoulders like we always do,” said Zylstra, who had 42 total tackles last year in a reserve role.
Jordan Pulu, Andru’s younger brother, is a likely backup, but the 6-2, 260-pound sophomore has been held back by shoulder and knee surgery.
The likely starter will be Matthew Sommer, a 6-5, 290-pound freshman from Salem, Ore., whose redshirt was burned last year to take advantage of a player Sawyer calls “the real deal and very unique in a lot of ways.”
Brandon Pritchett, a 6-1, 290-pound walk-on from Lakewood, Wash., “has all the tools, but is still learning to play the position,” Sawyer said.
Senior Ashton Boothroyd (6-3, 270 pounds), described by Sawyer as a “consistent grinder,” should see significant action at either tackle or nose tackle.
Sawyer said that a main priority this spring is to “develop guys into pass rushers and create their identity as a pass rushing group.”
If that’s the case, they can get plenty of pointers from Evan Day and Samson Ebukam, both of whom saw extensive playing time last year at the Eagles’ main pass-rushing position. At this point, Day and Ebukam are expected to rotate.
Day, (6-3, 245) a three-year letterman from Sammamish, Wash., “is very dynamic at what he does,” Sawyer said.
Ebukam a 6-3, 230-pounder from Portland, who like Sommer played extensively as a true freshman last year, “has a very high ceiling,” Sawyer said.
Former offensive lineman Zackary Johnson (6-2, 275) is penciled in as the starter after seeing significant playing time last year.
Johnson, a two-year letterman from Stanwood, Wash., transferred from Washington State in the summer of 2012, then moved to the defensive line last year.
Also in the mix is John Goldwire, a 6-1, 255-pound former linebacker from Lakewood, and Andre Lino, a 6-2, 240-pound freshman from Seattle.
Former offensive lineman Derek Weston, a 6-3, 265-pound senior from Maple Valley, Wash., is also expected to compete.