Inside running drills are the bread-and-butter of linebacker practice, and Zach Johnson is hungry.
“It’s definitely hard not being out there,” the injured EWU linebacker said Wednesday. “Especially when we are out there in pads.”
Johnson hasn’t put on pads for six months since suffering a knee injury that isn’t fully healed.
“Earlier this month,” EWU linebackers coach Josh Fetter said, “we’re having an inside run session, and you see Zach popping over there.
“And I had to tell him, ‘If you get hurt, that wouldn’t be a good thing.’”
It certainly wasn’t last year, when Johnson, an All-American when Eastern won the national title in 2010, was lost for the season in September.
Together with injuries to other linebackers – four players started at the weak outside linebacker and three in the middle – it was a big setback to the whole defense. The Eagles finished 101st out of 120 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. Against the run, the Eagles were ranked 110th, yielding 213 yards a game.
The payoff, according to Fetter, entering his second season at EWU, is that the linebacker corps “is more experienced and getting a better feel as to what they want to accomplish. They’re all great kids, citizens and students.”
For now, Johnson is OK with being one of their teachers, helping the younger players while his knee heals.
“Zach has done everything to be a leader out there without taking any snaps,” Fetter said. “He’s an extra set of eyes on the field, and tells them what they’ve done right or wrong.”
The Eagles expect Johnson to do the same thing this fall – while wearing full pads.
Here is how the the Eagles are shaping up this spring at the three linebacker positions:
Mike: The Mike, or middle linebacker, is primarily a run-stopper, backing up the interior line. “And if they’re clicking,” Fetter said, “then we don’t get touched. If they keep their motors running, then we’re free to make plays.”
Senior Tyler Washburn (6-1, 230) started here during the Eagles’ national title season, and made one of the biggest plays of the year when he returned a fumble for a touchdown in the semifinals against Villanova. He suffered a knee injury before the title game against Delaware and was still hampered last year, starting just three games. Fully recovered now, he’s “doing a fantastic job,” Fetter said.
Sophomore Cody McCarthy (6-1, 230), started five games last year after Washburn was injured, and “has had a heck of a spring,” despite being recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes, Fetter said.
Will: The Will, or weak outside linebacker, often faces a slot receiver, so footspeed and changing direction is crucial. That and his closing speed make Johnson so special, Fetter said. A senior next year, Johnson (6-1, 225) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA this winter. “If Zach feels he’s where he wants to be, injury-wise, then he’s the guy,” Fetter said.
Junior J.C. Agen (6-2, 210) filled in late last season season, starting four games, “got his first real reps and was making some great strides,” said Fetter – until Agen too was injured.
This spring, Agen said he’s focusing on “getting my reads and footwork back. Senior Rusty Haehl (5-11, 215) is in the mix along with sophomore John Goldwire (6-1, 225), a former inside ‘backer who is finding his new spot to be a “natural fit,” according to Fetter.
Sam: The strong inside linebacker usually lines up inside on the tight end side, and is often responsible for covering the tight end in a passing situation. For most of last year, that was the job of Ronnie Hamlin (6-2, 210), who according to Fetter “has improved in all facets this spring” even while coping with a broken hand suffered earlier this month. Hamlin was hampered by knee injuries his first two years, so last year as his first significant action. “There were some learning pains, but those flashes were there,” Fetter said. “This is someone who can carry on the tradition here.”
Senior Grant Williams (6-1, 225) can play all three positions, said Fetter, and indeed played last year at both outside spots. “Mentally to be able to do that is pretty impressive,” Fetter said, while Williams said he simply hopes to “get better at every aspect of my game.”