Despite losing three starters, the Eastern Washington defensive line is hardly in rebuilding mode.
Assistant coach Ryan Sawyer doesn’t even need to reload, thanks partly to the Eagles’ emphasis on rotating up to 10 players per game.
There are plenty of bullets in the chamber; leave it to junior Dylan Zylstra to fire first.
“It’s huge,” said Zylstra, a versatile, 270-pounder from Kent, Wash.” Talking to our O-linemen and some on other teams, it’s devastating when they see new guys rotating in the middle of a series. And they’re exhausted, while it keeps us fresh and helps us make more plays.”
And big plays, when it matters most. Last season, during the first half of games, Eastern opponents converted 47 percent of their third-down opportunities; in the second half, that plummeted to 36 percent.
That also got the Eagles offense back on the field in the fourth quarter. Last year, opponents enjoyed more time of possession in the first three quarters, but in the final period, Eastern turned the tables by a full minute.
Building quality depth is an ongoing process.
“It takes a little bit of time to take form, where the guys have the experience and I’m able to keep guys healthy and fresh,” said Sawyer, now in his sixth year.
“And that’s the biggest piece: guys buying into it and not worrying about whether you’re a 1 or a 2, but understanding what your role is and making sure you’re contributing.”
The lone returning starter is UW transfer Andru Pulu, who missed spring ball with a foot injury but is fully healed. In the process, Pulu gained “25 or 30 pounds” and now weighs in at 315, and figures to be a solid run-stopper along with fellow senior Will Katoa.
The Eagles were inconsistent against the run last year, giving up 4.2 yards per rush, but Pulu hopes that “when we have two 300-pounders in the middle … we’re going to try to shut that down quick.”
Katoa “is extremely smart and plays with great technique,” Sawyer said.
On the ends, the Eagles will count on 245-pound junior Evan Day, who Sawyer calls a “great edge rusher who’s very dynamic. On the other side, Anthony Larry is back after a year of academic ineligiblity. Larry was the Eagles’ top pass rusher in 2011, and could also be employed in a “buck” linebacker role.
“He’s a heck of a talent,” Sawyer said of Larry, a 250-pounder out of Sacramento, Calif.
Sawyer calls Zylstra his most versatile player, capable of contributing up and down the line.
“Whatever I have to do,” Zylstra said. Last year, that included a fourth-quarter punt block at second-ranked Montana State that helped the Eagles to a 27-24 win and put them atop the national FCS rankings.
“Dylan’s always going to have a role,” Sawyer said. “I can trust Dylan to make plays with his heart and effort.”
Other upperclassmen in the unit include junior Derek Weston (265 pounds), junior Zackary Johnson (275), senior Jacob Pugsley (235) and junior John Goldwire, a 255-pounder moved up from linebacker.
Jordan Pulu, another converted linebacker, saw plenty of action last year. The 260-pound sophomore is Andru’s younger brother. Branson Schmidt, a 255-pound sophomore from Central Valley High School, also may see action.