Return of Buchanan Candidate Ronnie Hamlin Bolsters Hopes for Defensive Improvement and National Title Hunt
With or without Ronnie Hamlin, the Eastern Washington University linebacker corp was going to be experienced and talented heading into the 2014 football season.
But when his appeal for a sixth year was granted by the NCAA, the Eagle defense returns a heralded All-American and Buck Buchanan Award candidate to a squad that has room for improvement.
A year ago, Eastern was 104th among 122 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Schools in total defense (457.7), 74th in rushing (180.7), 115th in passing (277.1) and 73rd in scoring (28.3). The Eagles know those numbers will have to improve for EWU to compete for the national title they hope to chase in 2014.
Hamlin, who received a year of eligibility to replace two others wiped out because of knee injuries, was 12th in the voting last season for the Buchanan Award presented to the top defensive player in FCS. He earned second team All-America and second team All-Big Sky accolades after finishing with 140 tackles to rank fourth in school history.
One of three returning starters at linebacker for EWU, Hamlin also had a pair of sacks and two interceptions – one he returned for a game-turning touchdown – in 2013. He enters the 2014 season with 361 tackles, just 71 from the record of 432 set by 2010 Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt (2007-10).
Cody McCarthy was also impressive last season, with 115 tackles to rank as the 13th-most in EWU history. He also had three sacks, and enters his senior season with 203 tackles, good for 35th all-time. The third returning starter is Miquiyah Zamora, who had 54 tackles, a sack and an interception as a redshirt freshman.
Other experienced linebackers returning include senior Jordan Talley, who had 45 tackles in his first season as a linebacker after playing previously as a running back.
Sophomores Albert Havili and Cedric Gonzalez are back after finishing with 61 and eight tackles, respectively, as freshmen. Havili set the school record for tackles by a true freshman, and returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown in the FCS Playoffs versus Jacksonville State.
In addition, 2013 redshirts Jake Gall and John Kreifels should burst onto the scene after sharing EWU's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honor. They should play major roles as backups and on special teams.
Defensive line, which usually rotates 10 players every game, is similarly loaded with talent and depth. However, three starters who all earned All-Big Sky honors were lost, and senior end Evan Day will get a late start to the season because of a knee injury suffered in the spring.
Senior Dylan Zylstra, a two-time honorable mention all-league selection, is the most experienced interior lineman back. He finished the 2013 season with 42 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and three quarterback hurries. Matthew Sommer, who had 21 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks as a true freshman in 2013, returns with significant experience. Also, Jordan Pulu redshirted last year but had four tackles as a true freshman in 2012.
Besides Day, other ends returning include senior Zackary Johnson and sophomore Samson Ebukam. Day earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades a year ago, and had 49 tackles with six sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries in 2013. He enters 2014 with 14 career sacks.
Johnson had 34 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks as a junior. Ebukam, who earned Freshman All-America accolades as a true freshman in 2013, could be a breakout performer on the defensive line after finishing with 28 tackles, three sacks and an interception as a true freshman.
Other past letterwinners returning on the defensive line include seniors John Goldwire and Ashton Boothroyd, although a rare muscle disease kept Goldwire from playing in 2013. Andre Lino and William Lopez redshirted as freshmen last season.
Eastern lost three starters in the secondary, most notably its two starting cornerbacks in T.J. Lee III and Ronald Baines. Lee was a three-time All-Big Sky first team selection and two-time All-American, and Baines earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a senior. Lee, Baines and graduated starting safety Allen Brown, who also received All-BSC honorable mention, combined for 152 games played, 101 career starts, 644 tackles, 13 interceptions and 54 passes broken up in their careers.
Eastern does return a trio of experienced safeties in senior Tevin McDonald, junior Todd Raynes and junior Jordan Tonani. McDonald, who transferred to EWU from UCLA, had 43 tackles and an interception in nine games to earn third team All-Big Sky accolades in his debut as an Eagle.
But a leg injury cut McDonald's season short, enabling Raynes to take over as a starter. He finished the season with 52 tackles and four passes broken up, and was a force on special teams. Tonani, who missed the 2013 season because of a pair of hip surgeries, was a Freshman All-America selection in 2012 when he had 68 tackles, three interceptions and five passes broken up, including a pivotal interception return for a touchdown at Montana State.
Two letterwinners are back at cornerback -- Frank Cange and D'londo Tucker. Tucker played as a true freshman in 2013 and was listed as a starter at cornerback entering 2014, but an off-season knee injury will force him to redshirt this year.
Cange and 2013 redshirt freshmen Jake Hoffman are currently listed as starters after their performances in the spring, but newcomers and incoming freshmen may also be in the mix. Victor Gamboa was also a 2013 redshirt and practiced with the team for the last year, but 2013 redshirt Keonte White did not because of NCAA regulations. The Eagles also received a boost in the summer when Rashad Wadood transferred to EWU from Arizona State.
"It's very similar to last year when the three wide receivers left," said Baldwin of the holes in the secondary. "It's exciting to see that next group come in and battle, and probably surprise a lot of people.
"We can say the same at the corner position – we lost three seniors who played a lot of football for us, so it will be exciting to see those young players coming in and competing," he continued. "Every position is important, but we all know the island cornerbacks are on. It takes a lot of physical ability and mental toughness to play that position, and play it at a high level. I'm excited to see those battles."