Looking for the skinny on Eastern Washington’s defense? Look no further than Jerry Ceja.
But don’t look past him. The Internet fan sites were full of it, as usual, before the Eagles’ game last month at Washington State.
“They have a 220-pound DE!” wrote one fan.
“And by the way, 220 pounds is giving him the benefit of the doubt,” EWU defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer said.
But you can’t judge this bookend by his cover. Ceja had a sack and several hurries as Eastern shut out the Cougars in the second half and nearly pulled off its first upset of a Pac-12 opponent.
“He made their life miserable all game long,” head coach Beau Baldwin shouted to his players as he gave the Eagles’ weekly defensive MVP award to the pass-rush specialist from Aurora, Colo.
At Weber State two weeks later, Ceja forced a quarterback fumble that decided the game, the latest of several big plays by the third-down specialist.
Now, with several linemates injured, Ceja is making an impact on first and second downs as well.
“How do you keep a guy that productive off the field?” Sawyer asked.
“He’s brought a relentless pursuit of the football in every situation and the ability to rush the passer on every down and distance.”
Always a defensive end, Ceja was a first-team, all-state selection for an 11-1 high school, but bigger schools sized him up and looked elsewhere.
Montana State and Northern Colorado (where his older brother Dominic played) also showed interest, but he was impressed on his official visit to Cheney.
“Other teams didn’t have that cohesion, and I felt we could do something special,” Ceja said.
Ceja found his niche as a true freshman in 2009, playing in 10 games and being named to the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team. The next season, he played in 14 games, including three straight as a starter, and the road to the national championship was paved with several big plays by Ceja:
A forced fumble on a sack on the final play to secure a 36-27 win over Montana in the first game on the red turf at Roos Field;
Another forced fumble on a sack that led to the winning touchdown drive in a 35-28 win at North Colorado;
Two sacks and a hurry in the FCS semifinal win against Villanova.
Last season, he led the Eagles with 51/2 sacks, and the conference in sacks per minute played.
Past accomplishments are nice, but Ceja instead thrives on the science of disruption, changing the formula with the upcoming opponent.
“There are two aspects to it, the strategy and the physical aspect,” Ceja said. “I’m always watching film, figuring out how I can take advantage of their size and their weaknesses.
“I feel like with my speed and agility, they will have a hard time trying to stop me. I try to set them up with my moves – speed rushes, then coming inside.”
The analysis comes naturally. Ceja is majoring in criminal justice with an emphasis on computer science. He carries a 3.2 grade-point average, and he’s intrigued by cyber security and the war against computer hackers.
“That’s unacceptable in our society, and anything I could do to stop that would be beneficial.”
Ceja is scheduled to graduate next term, then go to graduate school the following year. He never redshirted, so he’ll have another year to devote to graduate school.
Football isn’t out of the picture, and he plans to participate in the Eastern pro day in the spring.
In the meantime, with injuries on the line, third down became every down, even with Montana shoving Ceja and the Eagles’ defense down the field for 433 rushing yards.
“Yeah, they came right at me,” said Ceja, who went back to the film room. “But I’ve been working more on my runs reads,” he said before the North Dakota game.
The payoff was immediate – two more sacks pushed his team-high total to five this season, and he won a second weekly defensive MVP award.
The stats are really a team award, Ceja said.
Defensive tackles Evan Cook, Andru Pulu and Will Katoa – “there’s no stats for what they do” to open up the pass rush routes,” Ceja said. The other ends – Eva Day, Paul Ena and David Gaylord – “are communicating a lot more,” Ceja said.
“I believe we’re just getting started.”