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EWU spring football: Secondary grows through transition phase

Eastern Washington defensive back Zach Bruce comes off the tackling sled during the first day of spring practice in March. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington defensive back Zach Bruce comes off the tackling sled during the first day of spring practice in March. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

This is the seventh in an eight-part series on spring football at Eastern Washington. Today: the secondary

Cole Karstetter is literally growing into his job.

The Eastern Washington roverback put on about 12 pounds of muscle over the winter – all the better to “hit people a little harder in the box,” Karstetter said as the Eagles prepared for Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game.

Karstetter and the rest of the Eagles’ secondary endured a few growing pains last year, including the transition to a 4-2-5 scheme, new terminology and a new mindset of playing with more aggression.

“I think the challenge is to stay consistent,” said Karstetter, citing the Eagles’ struggles on third down last year. “It’s frustrating when we can’t get the ball – that’s what we’re priding ourselves on this spring and moving forward into fall.”

Jeff Schmedding, the Eagles defensive coordinator and safeties coach, says it will be easier to move forward now that his players are familiar with the new system. “We’ll be able to play a lot faster,” he said.

Of the 17 cornerbacks and safeties in spring camp, Schmedding said, “I’m really proud of how the guys have attacked the offseason and living up to that standard.”

Here’s how the Eastern secondary is shaping up in spring practice:

Roverback: Last year, Karstetter was thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman when starter Todd Raynes was injured. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder from Ferris High School responded with 42 tackles and showed steady improvement, according to Schmedding, who cites Karstetter’s “football savvy” as a major reason to expect even better things this season.

Senior J.J. Njoku, a 5-9, 200-pound transfer from Washington State, has looked good this spring. Redshirt junior John Kreifels (5-9, 205) also is in the mix.

Cornerback: According to Schmedding, depth and talent at corner “gives us the ability to play multiple corners – which is a good thing, considering we’ll play plenty of fast-paced offenses this year.”

Assistant coach Cherokee Valeria, who’s going into his fifth year with the corners, has built a solid group led by veterans Nzuzi Webster and Victor Gamboa.

Webster, a 5-10, 175-pound redshirt sophomore, was a 10-game starter last year. He also has the ability to play at the nickel position. “He’s a kid that plays aggressively and has the ability to cover,” Schmedding said.

The same goes for Gamboa, a 6-0, 180-pound junior from Tacoma, whose aggressiveness has kept him in the mix since the fall of 2014. “He has strength along with the nastiness,” Schmedding said.

The Eagles are getting a strong performance from redshirt sophomore Josh Lewis, a 6-0, 175-pounder from Lakewood, Washington. “He’s put on weight and things are starting to click – he’s not going to make things easy on anybody,” Schmedding said.

Also competing for playing time are redshirt junior D’londo Tucker (6-0, 170) and redshirt sophomore Brandon Montgomery (5-9, 175).

Safety: This is another deep position for the Eagles, who return starters Zach Bruce (53 tackles) and Mitch Fettig (43 tackles and four passes defended).

Bruce, a 5-11, 190-pounder from University High, goes into his senior season as “one of the best leaders on the team. He’s very consistent and tough-minded – he sets the tone for us on the field,” Schmedding said.

Fettig, a 5-10, 175-pound redshirt sophomore from Olympia, was a pleasant surprise last year, starting eight games while showing solid coverage and tackling.

Also in the mix is redshirt junior and North Central product Jake Hoffman (6-0, 180 pounds). “I’ve been impressed with how he’s attacked the off-season,” Schmedding said.

Redshirt freshmen Dehonta Hayes and Tysen Prunty also are competing for playing time.

Coming Friday: Part eight, special teams

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