One good reason the Eastern Washington defensive line got better last November? April.
“Spring ball, I look at as a time to develop depth,” defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer said. “I’m always trying to figure out not who’s the backup, but who’s the guy after that.”
Sawyer and defensive coordinator John Graham have plenty to sort through this spring. The Eagles’ roster includes 15 defensive linemen and should be a strong group despite the loss of three starters.
The key was a deep rotation, often 10 a game, which kept the Eagles fresh late in games as well as late in the season. For the season, Eastern gave up just 74 fourth-quarter points in 13 games, or less than six points a contest.
“It all starts with the D-line. Everything still starts with those guys,” said head coach Beau Baldwin, who has made the defensive line a priority in recruiting since he took over the program in 2008.
Despite the loss of tackle Evan Cook and ends Jerry Ceja and Paul Ena, it still does. Here’s a look at the defensive line.
End: The biggest offseason news was the return of junior Anthony Larry, who was academically ineligible last year.
“He brings a lot of energy, and he’s one of those guys we love being around,” Sawyer said of the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Larry. “And he has the ability to make some plays that a lot of players can’t.”
In 2011, that included a team-high 12 tackles for loss, plus 3.5 sacks.
Larry has a main focus this year: “My grades, first, but I think we can be awesome this year.”
The other likely starter is Evan Day, a 6-1, 245-pound junior who had a breakout year in 2012 while seeing extensive action. “He’s really consistent, plays hard and is extremely athletic,” Sawyer said.
Key backups include senior Jakob Puglsey (6-3, 235) and junior John Goldwire (6-1, 255), who was moved from linebacker during the offseason after adding 20 pounds.
Junior Zackary Johnson (6-2, 275), freshman Zach Wimberly (6-3, 240) and Anthony Lira (6-2, 245) also are in the mix.
Nose tackle: Sawyer said he learned a lot during the offseason, just by watching film of Will Katoa.
“Sometimes you don’t really catch on to everything, then you watch all the game and the cutups, and a lot of things stand out to you,” Sawyer said. “His consistency really stood out last year, and for those inside positions, that’s one of the most important things.”
Katoa enjoyed a memorable homecoming last year in the Big Sky Conference opener at Weber State. He recovered a game-saving fumble in the final minute, then celebrated with two dozen family and friends after the game.
“That was awesome, but so was the whole season,” said the 6-0, 295-pound Katoa, now a senior.
Junior Ashton Boothroyd (6-3, 270) and sophomore Branson Schmidt (6-1, 255) are the key backups.
“We’re experienced and we’re hungry,” Katoa said.
Tackle: University of Washington transfer Andru Pulu was a presence in the middle last year and figures to be again at one of the deepest positions on the team.
“No one’s going to argue with that,” Sawyer said of the 6-2, 290-pound Pulu, a senior who is sidelined this spring from ligament damage in his right leg suffered in the FCS quarterfinal win over Illinois State.
The key backup is Dylan Zylstra, a 6-4, 270-pound junior whose fourth-quarter punt block at Montana State was one of the key plays of the season.
“He’s a high-motor guy,” Sawyer said of Zylstra.
Also in the mix is Pulu’s younger brother, Jordan, who’s moved from linebacker and is on the line for the first time.
“He’s catching on quickly,” said Sawyer, who added that there may be situations that will put Andru Pulu at nose tackle.