With all due respect to Samson Ebukam, a good pass rush is more than one freakishly good player on the edge.
“Nothing changes for us,” Eastern Washington defensive end Albert Havili said. “We’re still going to be the Savage D-line.”
Make that savageness mixed with some more sophisticated schemes. According to defensive front coordinator Eti Ena, the Eagles will try to get to the quarterback “by committee, with the edge guys and the inside guys.”
“A lot of what we do is find ways to isolate guys, to find the best matchups and maximize those situations,” Ena said.
Those situations should be more plentiful this year, thanks to bigger run-stoppers on the ends, some serious beef inside and a deep group of savvy, experienced cornerbacks that can hold coverage for that vital extra half-second.
“The guys are playing more downhill this year,” said assistant coach Brian Strandley, who credits coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s 4-2-5 scheme as well as the maturity of the D-line.
“We’re learning to be more destructive,” Havili said.
That maturity starts with nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, a 320-pound senior who may have been the biggest surprise on the team last year. Replacing the injured Matt Sommer early in the season, he went on to become first-team all-Big Sky Conference.
“And he’s a better pass-rusher than you’d think,” Ena said.
Along with starting tackle Andre Lino and the backups, Tiuli will have plenty of chances to collapse the pocket.
Most of the pressure will come from the ends. Last year, Ebukam accounted for 15 of the Eagles’ 35 sacks. His eight quarterback hurries were matched by Havili, the other bookend.
Now a senior, the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Havili, a former linebacker, has moved to Ebukam’s old spot at “buck” end. Junior Keenan Williams (6-3, 255), a Cheney product, will start at field end.
“I’m excited about where Albert is right now, and Keenan, too,” Ena said. “And they’re interchangeable. I love that.”
As in past years, the Eagles will rotate freely. Ena is excited about field end backups Jim Townsend (6-4, 250) and Conner Baumann (6-2, 250), both juniors.
Havili will also need a breather, so senior Marcus Saugen is waiting. The North Central grad added a few pounds in the offseason. Now at 6-3, 240, he figures to “hit the line a lot harder.”
In addition to the extra calories, Saugen had a chance to digest what he’s learned from Ebukam, a fourth-round NFL draft pick.
“He taught me how to use the abilities I have, and making sure that I know the plays,” Saugen said.
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