As the backside of Eastern Washington’s secondary appeared serviceable in Saturday’s scrimmage, its key figures, Mitch Fettig, Tysen Prunty and Cole Karstetter, wore shorts on the sideline.
Coach Aaron Best rested the two safeties and rover, who, among 15 other players, were “dinged up” and didn’t suit up as a precaution.
Their presence may have prevented the first-team defense from getting beat over the top on a couple of plays, but Fettig, a team captain, said he liked what he saw against a first-team offense with some of the Big Sky Conference’s top players.
Redshirt freshman Anthany Smith and junior Tamir Hill – both listed as reserves on the safety depth chart – combined for a scrimmage-leading 13 tackles.
“In years past, I always thought we had guys who could play. But this year, top to bottom, we’ve got guys who’ve shown they can make plays out there. It’s exciting.” Fettig said. “Dehonta Hayes. Calin Criner, Smith and Hill, they’re all stepping up.”
That’s good news for an already experienced group.
For the last three years, Fettig, a 6-foot, 175-pound senior, has been a key cog in the Eagles’ 4-2-5 defense, leading the team in tackles last season (92) and being named the All-Big Sky Conference team.
Last year’s safeties were relatively inexperienced, allowing Prunty (52 tackles, fifth on the team) to earn his first four starts.
Anfernee Gurley played as a true freshman, tallying 37 tackles, three passes broken up and two forced fumbles. He registered a start when the Eagles went into a nickel defense.
At rover, a hybrid position that’s a cross between a linebacker and strong safety, Karstetter, a Ferris High product, has 15 starts throughout his career. He’s expected to be key in run support.
“We were a young group last year, but now we have some veteran leadership,” said EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, who is also the team’s safeties coach.
“With a couple guys out, it’s given an opportunity for other guys to step up in practice.”
With a quick-strike offense that’s often among lowest in the country in time of possession, the Eagles’ defense gets a workload and inherently gives up more yards.
But when safeties lead the team in tackles – Fettig, Prunty and Gurley and Karsetter were among the top 12 tacklers last season – it’s often the product of a defense that needs improvement.
The Eagles ranked 115th in total defense (465 yard allowed per game), 118th in pass defense (272.3 ypg) and 121st in surrendering first downs, 133 by air. Forcing turnovers was a problem, too, ranking 105th with 13 (six interceptions, seven fumble recoveries).
“Takeaways were a problem last year. We’ve been able to get a quite a few of those lately (in practice),” Schmedding said. “But we still saw too many big plays, but I think we’re getting close to where we need to be.”
Fettig said the team is focused on forcing turnovers.
“We just have to go take the ball. We just have to have that mindset of being ball hawks out there,” Fettig said.
“When the ball is in the air, we can’t wait for a receiver to break it up. We have to go up and get it. And when it comes to making tackles and someone holding someone up, we have to come in and strip the ball.”