The growing pains have come in waves for the Eastern Washington defensive linemen.
In 2014, it was the challenge of youth, as a spate of injuries forced a bonfire of burned redshirts and threw seven true freshmen into the inferno.
Last year, it was the frustration of a November that left the Eagles on the field for eternities, the product of too many lost battles on third down.
Now they’re ready for some payback.
“We have to establish domination on the D-line, because that’s where it starts,” said Samson Ebukam, the Eagles’ pass-rushing ace and one of six newly-minted team captains.
Actually, the work started in the weight room last winter. The reward was more muscle and more confidence. Both were honed in the spring under new defensive front coordinator Eti Ena and D-line coach Brian Strandley.
Ena said the key is a return to fundamentals – pad level, hand placement and get-off.
“As we improve and the players see it on film, and they see that the results are positive, whatever scheme we’re running, we’ll be sound in our technique,” Ena said.
Here’s how the defensive line is shaping up as fall camp winds down:
Tackle: The Eagles typically employ a four-man front with a nose tackle and a “3 Technique” tackle, with some players seeing game action at both spots.
Senior Matthew Sommer has a presence at nose tackle since his freshman season in 2013. Last year he started all 11 games. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder from Salem is looking to fill a leadership role as well as filling gaps.
With Sommer nursing a minor knee injury, junior Jay-Tee Tiuli (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) may get the starting nod in next week’s opener at Washington State. The top backups are two sophomores, Kaleb Levao (6-3, 290) and Dylan Donahue (6-1, 285).
At tackle, the starter figures to be junior Andre Lino, who’s only 6-3 and 265, but showed a lot of improvement last spring. The frustration of last November “gives us a goal that we’ve been working toward,” Lino said.
Sophomore Jonah Jordan (6-2, 250) and redshirt freshman Dylan Ledbetter (6-4, 250) are the top backups.
End: Eastern’s scheme often uses a speedier “rush end” on the weak side and a bigger “field end” on the strong side.
One of the Eagles’ most athletic players is Ebukam, a 6-3, 240-pounder who had four tackles and seven tackles for loss while playing all 11 games in 2015. After sitting out spring ball following a shoulder injury, Ebukam said that “this is my healthiest camp so far.”
Backup Marcus Saugen, a North Central HS product, is only 215 pounds but offers speed and slipperiness from the edge. Nick Foerstel, a 230-pound junior from Tumwater, also is expected to see action.
The Eagles got a big year at field end last season from hometown kid Keenan Williams, who started nine games last year and had 43 tackles.
“I really feel like I can play hard and not be afraid to make mistakes,” said the 6-3, 260-pounder. “I know I’m going to make mistakes, but as long as I’m making them at 100 percent, I’m good.”
Backups at field end are Jim Townsend, a 6-4, 230-pounder from Okanogan, and converted linebacker Albert Havili (6-2, 255).
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