Matt Sommer, the veteran of the Eastern Washington defensive line, looked especially grizzled during two-a-days Wednesday.
Thirty minutes into the morning session, the sweat was pouring. But even as temperatures climbed into the 90s in the afternoon, motivation was still easy to find: Illinois State 59, Eastern Washington 46.
That was the final score in the Eagles’ FCS quarterfinal loss last year, a game that saw Eastern’s young defensive line get pushed around for 542 yards while giving up scores on the Redbirds’ first nine possessions.
It was the final hurt in a season of growing pains for a unit that saw six true freshmen see action. Now they’re ready to push back.
“It was tough, but everyone has the same goal, the national championship,” said the 310-pound Sommer, who along with fellow junior Samson Ebukam hopes to lead them there.
“Everyone knows what they have to do, and everyone’s been accountable,” Sommer said.
They’re even counting the pounds. “I’m up to 211,” said Marcus Saugen, a North Central High School product who saw extensive playing time last year at buck end, the Eagles’ primary pass-rushing position.
“It was tough last year, definitely difficult, but I took it on, and I couldn’t do it without my teammates,” said Saugen, who currenty sits third on the depth chart behind the 240-pound Ebukam and another true sophomore, 230-pound Connor Baumann.
It’s the same situation at the other end, where true freshmen Jonah Jordan and Keenan Williams are in the mix along with redshirt freshman Jakob Stoll.
There’s more youth at nose tackle, where Sommer and redshirt freshman Monike Sarte (290 pounds) sit atop the depth chart. At the other tackle spot, redshirt sophomore Andre Lino (265 pounds) expects to share time with true soph Jay-Tee Tiuli (315) and redshirt freshman Kaleb Levao (290).
All expect last year’ experience to pay off this year.
“Being put in that position, it was scary and nerve-wracking, but after a couple of games I started getting into it,” said Lino, one of 14 D-linemen on the fall roster.
There should be more, but the Eagles lost four potential contributors since spring ball: senior Evan Day’s petition for a sixth year of eligibility was denied by the NCAA; Albert Havili is expected to redshirt after an ACL injury suffered in spring ball; and underclassmen Dylan Donahue and William Lopez elected not to return this year.
Whether more redshirts will be burned this year remains to be seen. A strong candidate would be 260-pound Williams, a three-star recruit from Cheney High School who enrolled early and participated in spring ball.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to put my best players on the field,” said D-line coach Ryan Sawyer, who usually rotates at least 10 players on game days.
With the Sept. 5 opener at Oregon barely two weeks away, coach Beau Baldwin sees nothing but positives from last year’s experience. “It’s huge, because there’s nothing like playing experience,” Baldwin said.
Fall camp hit the depths of the “dog days” on Wednesday. Temperatures hit the upper 90s and smoke hung in the air from recent fires. Several players were out with flu-like symptoms, according to head trainer Brian Norton. … Today’s practice will be the last on the grass fields behind Reese Court. … Baldwin said that Saturday’s scrimmage at Roos Field will include “a lot of situations,” including two-minute and red-zone drills, among others. Officials will be on hand.