The best unit at Eastern Washington this fall just might be the cornerbacks.
Their coach certainly thinks so.
The walls of Cherokee Valeria’s office are covered with photos of the corners he’s coached during five seasons at Eastern Washington. They include T.J. Lee, who along with Ron Baines and Bo Schuetzle helped the Eagles to a spot in the national semifinals.
“That was a great group, but this one definitely has more depth,” Valeria said.
In Josh Lewis, D’londo Tucker, Nzuzi Webster and Victor Gamboa – all upperclassmen – the Eagles have a group that’s athletic, savvy and experienced.
The experiences weren’t always pleasant, especially as redshirt freshmen in 2015 during a 6-5 season. However, the learning curve flattened last year, and the payoff came in a seven-game stretch in which opponents were held to 105 points.
“We’re ready to show even more leadership this year,” Lewis said.
The Eagles also were aggressive, with 17 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries. The combined total of 31 was their highest since 2010.
“You can grow a kid off the field, but it’s the game-time atmosphere that truly helps them grow and mature,” said Valeria, who’s going into his sixth season at Eastern.
“What I had was the luxury of seeing these guys truly fail (as freshmen), get them in the film room and tell them, ‘Now get back out there now,’ ” Valeria said.
“Then you see how he responds.”
Valeria said the players are so close in ability, he’s been able to rotate them freely at both corner spots as well as nickel back.
“It comes down to how I keep them competitive,” Valeria said. “If one guy feels like he’s the starter, then the other guys are nipping at his heels.”
The quietest player, junior Nzuzi Webster, made the most noise on the field last year. He finished with 57 tackles, a pick and seven breakups on the way to a being named third-team all-Big Sky Conference.
“I want to see him break out of his shell,” Valeria said. “He’s better than he thinks he is … when that happens he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Likewise, Lewis is “only scratching the surface” of his potential, said Valeria, who said he’s continually impressed by the junior’s attention to detail.
An all-conference academic selection, Lewis “continually blows me away with what he does on and off the field,” Valeria said.
Their alter ego is Gamboa, a 22-game starter who’s going into his senior year.
Flamboyance and confidence have made Gamboa “my best guy I can lean on,” Valeria said. “He owns the meeting room, and the guys respect him.”
The best pure athlete may be Tucker, who had 24 tackles and a pair of picks while starting just five games.
Another junior, Brandon Montgomery will see action at nickel back.
There’s just one problem with all that experience: The young guys won’t see the field much this fall.
But give them time: Experience is just around the corner.
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