There was a hole in the middle of Eastern Washington’s defensive line last season, bigger than the ones it was allowing.
The Eagles, who ranked 98th in the country in run defense, played nine games without their most imposing figure, Jay-Tee Tiuli, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle who demands the attention of multiple offensive linemen.
After going down with a season-ending shoulder injury against North Dakota State, the All-Big Sky Conference first-teamer was replaced by Dylan Ledbetter (6-4, 250). Ledbetter had a solid season in the middle, his off-the-ball quickness contributing to 6.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
When now-graduated defensive tackle Andre Lino went down, Jonah Jordan earned six starts in his place. In the Eagles’ four-man front, their interior was ever-changing, creating their current depth.
The return of Tiuli, a preseason All-American, along with four starters and 10 letterwinners, has this group expecting a dramatic improvement.
“A big man like that is a difference maker,” EWU defensive line coach Eti Ena said of Tiuli.
Tiuli, Ledbetter and Jordan can use their respective skill sets alongside each other. Defensive tackles Keith Moore, Rudolph Mataia Jr. and Caleb Davis are also expected to be in the mix.
Senior defensive end and Cheney High product Keenan Williams doesn’t see a big chasm between the between the first and second units.
“We got dudes on our defensive line,” said Williams, a returning starter who had 55 tackles, four sacks and six tackles for a loss last season. “We have a lot of depth at defensive tackle. I don’t think there’s a big drop off when we put in our (second-string).
“I’m excited for our defensive line. A lot of them are vets, especially in the interior,” Tiuli said. “There’s a lot of us that played a lot of ball.”
Tiuli’s return is an obvious boon, but the defensive line must also make up for the production of defensive end Albert Havili, an All-Big Sky Conference selection on the Buffalo Bills’ preseason roster.
Havili spearheaded a pass rush that was often inconsistent. Ena, whose primary focus is defensive ends, thinks his group can improve from the near 200 yards rushing a game it allowed in 2017.
“We’ve got very above-average guys around (Tiuli),” Ena said. “My responsibility is working those edge guys, and we’ve got some depth there.”
Jim Townsend, who redshirted last season but saw time in 2015 and 2016, returns at defensive end, listed behind Williams on the preseason depth chart. On the opposite end is Nick Foerstel, who has played in 23 games, along with redshirt freshman Mitch Johnson, last season’s scout team player of the year.
What will EWU’s defensive line have to do this this season to shore up last season’s deficiencies?
“Play with a better base and make sure we’re keeping fresh bodies,” Williams said. “Keep up with our rotations.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.