What growing pains?
To hear Eastern Washington’s true freshmen tell it, their sudden transformation into college football players has been worth every bruise – physical and otherwise.
That’s especially true on defense, where the newest Eagles have endured the lows and relished the highs of a season that’s definitely trending upward.
“It’s exciting,” said linebacker Ketner Kupp, a true freshman from Yakima who’s seeing extensive playing time and just got his first collegiate interception last weekend in the Eagles’ 45-28 win at Idaho State.
“We’ve got got four years together to keep building on this,” Kupp said before Tuesday’s practice at Roos Field.
At this rate, they’ll only need a few more weeks, as Eastern’s young defense is gaining consistency: one good quarter against Montana State, a good half against Sacramento State and Cal Poly, and now three quarters of domination at ISU.
“It’s been huge,” said Keenan Williams, who splits time at field end with another true freshman, Jim Townsend. “We can see the entire D-line growing.”
There’s still a lot of growing to do: Of the 13 defensive linemen listed on the depth chart for this week’s game at Northern Colorado, all but two are underclassmen. At linebacker, half are freshmen.
Along the front seven, only Kupp, Williams and Townsend are seeing meaningful playing time as true freshmen. And they wouldn’t have it any other way, even with schoolwork competing for their time.
“It’s a whole new experience – you’re either doing football or school – but I’m having a good time,” said Townsend, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder from Okanogan, Washington.
Williams, a three-star recruit from Cheney, got into the act even sooner; he graduated early so he could participate in spring ball. For the 6-3, 260-pound Willams, his redshirt was well and truly burned before fall camp began.
“But we didn’t tell him that,” joked defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer, who’s no stranger to raising young linemen in a hurry; last year, he turned half a dozen 18-year-olds into collegiate-level players.
“It’s a lot easier to coach two than six,” said Sawyer, who appreciates the fact that youngsters tend to be more coachable and impressionable – all the better to “get them to a high level,” he said.
Williams, who has 14 tackles in six games, acknowledges the steep learning curve. “But I have to get over it. I know they’re trying to get me better as fast as possible.”
All agree that progress is hastened by the Eagles’ practice of rotating up to a dozen players. Said Townsend, “You rotate, take a breath … but when you’re in, you’re expected to go all out.”
It’s the same at middle linebacker, where the 6-foot, 205-pound Kupp plays behind veteran Miquiyah Zamora but already has 14 tackles. Redshirt freshmen Alek Kacmarcik and Kurt Calhoun also see action, but only Kupp is just out of high school.
When coach Beau Baldwin brought up the question of redshirting, Kupp didn’t hesitate. “I felt like I should go for it. … It’s a big step up as far as work ethic goes, but everybody else is working hard, and you don’t want to let them down.”
Notes: The Eagles are treading water on the injury front. Starting right offensive tackle Cassidy Curtis is back on the practice field for the first time since suffering a foot injury in the opener at Oregon. However, co-starting linebacker Alek Kacmarcik (hamstring) is questionable after missing the Idaho State game. Another starter, kicker Tyler McNannay (hip flexor) also is questionable. Also missing the Idaho State game were a trio of key backups: wide receiver Simba Webster (knee), defensive lineman Kaleb Levao and running back Malcolm Williams (hamstring). Webster is listed as questionable for Northern Colorado, while Levao and Williams are doubtful. Backup linebacker Kurt Calhoun (hamstring) is questionable after missing the ISU game.