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Opponent Defense Preview: Eastern

It’s foobaw season!

NCAA Football: Division I Football Championship-Eastern Washington vs North Dakota State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Oh hey there, guess what time it is?

Since that’s obviously a rhetorical question, we’ll just dive right into it. So, what is there to know about the Eastern Washington Eagles (besides, obviously, their bright red inferno) and their defense?

It’s pretty much the following:

Personnel and What to Expect

Hokay, so. (Read that in the voice of the early-2000’s flash animation classic, “End of ze World.”)

The basics on Eastern in 2018: They gave up 20.6 points per game to FCS opponents, crushed Maine in the semifinals 50-19, and allowed 38 points in the national championship to the Bayern Münich of FCS, North Dakota State. In their one FBS matchup against WSU, the Eagles gave up 59 points.

While Eastern's been known at least for the last decade or so for their explosive offenses, their defense was stagnating just a few years ago. As of 2018 — and presumably 2019, too — their defense is doing pretty darn alright.

In a classic West Coast fashion, expect to see lots of nickel; they play both 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 frequently. And, while there's little reason to believe this defense won't be good, they do return only four starters. But, as UW fans in the year of our lord 2019, you know "returning starters” can be a misleading metric.

Let's start in the backfield.

Former starting cornerback, Josh Lewis, is gone, but safeties Calin Criner and Dehonta Hayes are returning from a year where they started much of the season and were very productive regardless of starter status. Criner, the son of Idaho's former DC, had 76 tackles and three interceptions in 2018, while Hayes had 87 and was Eastern's student newspaper's Student Athlete of the Year after becoming a starter the second half of last year and playing heavily the first half and in 2017. What's more, second-string safety, Tysen Prunty, has two years of rotated starting experience (starting seven games in 2018) and the stats to show for it (41 tackles and a sack, plus 52 tackles in 2017).

This year's cornerbacks are less proven. In fact, it's fair to say, they're not proven at all. Ira Branch and Darreon Moore, both sophomores, are listed as starters on the depth chart. While they both played in double-digit games last season, the amount of action they saw in those games and the impacts they had weren't especially significant where I'd feel comfortable relying on them, were I an Eastern fan.

Moving forward in the defense is a reminder that 2019 is the first year since 2012 that they've gone into the season without a Kupp on the roster. The latest, Ketner Kupp, was the pillar of the middle of the defense and is now, in true Kupp fashion, playing in LA with the Rams.

That said, of the inside linebackers in the two deep, three are seniors and one is a junior with plenty of past production. Chris Ojoh, the lone junior, had 105 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, two sacks, and one interception, while his counterpart Jack Sendelbach redshirted in 2018 (presumably because of an injury — I couldn't find any details on that but if any Eag fans can provide your knowledge in the comments, go for it) but started in Kupp's absence when he was injured for parts of 2017.

Then at buck, Mitchell Johnson returns after a Freshman All-American season last year, and is backed up by a familiar face — former Dawg, Jusstis Warren.

In the trenches, the big loss is tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, who anchored that defense for much of his tenure and was signed by the Seahawks as a UDFA. Who he says to watch? Senior DT Dylan Ledbetter, Sr DE Darnell Hogan, and redshirt freshman, Joshua Jerome. Also among his "look out fors” is Keith Moore, but he's currently not in the two-deep, presumably because he was shot in Spokane in a random shooting in July. The injury wasn't life threatening, thankfully, but I imagine he's not back to full speed.

As well, NT Caleb Davis returns after playing in 11 games last year, and DE Jim Townsend accompanies him after starting 10 games and notching four sacks last year, too.

While the defensive line has a promising combination of experience and young talent, it's worth noting that their heaviest linemen in the two deeps is only 275 lbs. Make of that what you will.

Bottom Line

Overall, Eastern’s defense doesn’t necessarily dominate — even being massively improved over a few years ago, they’re still primarily an offensive-powered team — but they have playmakers, they don’t get walked over, and against even the best FCS competition they always made it possible for their offense to make it a game.

Talent mismatch of two good teams in their different levels notwithstanding, there’s a few things that stand out to me. The first is what I just mentioned regarding the size of the defensive line — considering their lack of overwhelming size in the interior, it will be interesting to see the Dawgs use that as a way to ease Salvon Ahmed into a role where he’s running between the tackles more. Given that that’s the most constant “can he?” question mark that’s been floating around the ether this offseason, he should be able to answer a resounding “yes” against this defensive interior with this offensive line. I’m especially excited to watch Jaxson Kirkland in this matchup, given what an absolute mauler he became last year. Also, if you want to look for improvement — if Luke Wattenberg isn’t notably better in his opposite guard position, that’s probably, dare I say... not good?

In the backfield, the safeties are battle-hardened beyond just the starters and I expect they’ll be one of the best units Washington faces this game. On the other hand, the corners are... not. Considering where Washington’s experienced receivers stand with a limited ceiling, while their high ceiling receivers are younger, inexperienced, and unknown if they’re reliable — this’ll be another good learning moment of who’s taking what steps. Overall this combination will likely be pretty boom or bust for the Eags.

That’s it for Eastern.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.