There’s a running tally of interceptions on the wall of Eastern Washington cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria’s office, each snagged by a member of his group.
The fiery Valeria has experienced more feast than famine since joining the Eagles’ staff in 2012. In two of the past four seasons, his corners have totaled double-digit picks, including a 2014 campaign in which the Eagles had 19, the fifth-best mark in the country.
EWU’s six total interceptions last season, however, left the defense malnourished. Falling on just seven fumbles didn’t provide much sustenance, either.
For senior corner Josh Lewis, who came down with three of the team’s six picks a year ago, takeaways have been a point of emphasis.
“It’s just having that mentality of not only not letting the receiver catch the ball, but know that when the ball is in the air, that’s our ball,” Lewis said. “Everything time the ball is in the air, we want to get it”
Nzuzi Webster, another returning starter at corner, agreed.
“We know we need to get more (interceptions) this season,” Webster said. “We have to go and get it when it’s in the air.”
As a senior at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, California, Webster hauled in seven interceptions. Lewis once had a five-interception season at Steilacoom High School.
EWU’s forced turnover tally in 2017 ranked 105th nationally.
“We need to average around 9 or 10 interceptions,” Valeria said.
“Turnovers come in bunches,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “And we want those turnovers to be positive. In our greatest seasons at Eastern Washington, we’ve created more turnovers.”
Eastern returns a wealth of talent and experience on the corners and on the back end of its secondary in Lewis, Webster, rover Cole Karstetter and safeties Mitch Fettig and Tysen Prunty. Webster, Fettig and Lewis have all earned All-Big Sky Conference honors.
One of the reasons for EWU’s low interception total last season, Valeria said, was adjusting to a different system in the first year of the Aaron Best regime.
“It was that transition in what we were doing, and stressing certain situations,” Valeria said. “Such as man coverage compared to how we were attacking the quarterback.”
The Eagles also had trouble applying pressure up front last season, something they’re working to remedy this fall. If they do, it will likely lead to more errant passes and interceptions.
“The pressure that the defensive linemen and linebackers put are what help us make those plays,” Valeria said. “And if we do great coverage and that quarterback can’t get rid of the ball, those defensive linemen will create those sacks.
“Them getting a half-inch closer to the quarterback is going to get us another interception.”
Lewis and Webster are often tasked with covering the conference’s elite pass catchers, but they are also faced with the best in practice throughout the week.
“Going against guys like (current NFL receivers) Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne made us better, so hopefully that’ll show more this season,” Lewis said.
“We want to solidify ourselves as the best corner group in the conference,” Webster said. “We have four returning corners who played a lot last year, so our goal is to be the best, and to lead the team in turnovers.”
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