CHENEY — When Eastern Washington linebackers coach Josh Fetter was asked if Kurt Calhoun and Ketner Kupp were the clear-cut starters at their respective middle and strongside spots, he nodded.
But not without giving a major qualifier.
“On paper, yes,” Fetter answered. “But that can change before the season opener. That can change today.”
Calhoun and Kupp combined for 139 tackles a year ago, making them EWU’s second-and third-leading ballstoppers. They’ve been key cogs in the Eagles’ 4-2-5 scheme.
Considering the two Yakima-area products missed a combined four games last season, those numbers could increase in the coming months.
It was those injuries that helped EWU’s linebackers establish its current depth, now giving the coaching staff ample options of who they want defending the second-level.
Jack Sendelbach displayed versatility at the position, starting the first three games at strong linebacker when Kupp was injured. Later in the season, when Calhoun was out for a game, he registered his fourth start at middle linebacker.
All Sendelbach did was tally 13 tackles and two fumble recoveries in a Week 2 loss to FCS juggernaut North Dakota State. His 11 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a win at North Dakota earned him Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week distinction.
And he’s not the only one challenging Kupp and Calhoun for first-team reps.
Andrew Katzenberger has earned time in the middle the last two seasons. Trevor Davis showed his potential in 2016 with five tackles in a FCS playoff win over Richmond, but used a medical redshirt last season. Chris Ojoh played in all 11 games at strong ’backer as a true freshman a year ago.
“They all have a jack of their own trade,” Fetter said. “Some are better than others at certain things. Competition makes you better, and there’s a lot of competition in the group right now.”
Kupp, the brother of former EWU star and current Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, agreed.
“I feel like the group has a little bit of everything,” he said. “We’ve got some experience, we got some hungry young guys.
“Whether it’s coming off the edge or being really solid in the run game, I think our group does it all.”
Fetter said Ojoh (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) is the most physically gifted among the six linebackers and has continued to improve.
At rover, a relatively new position in college football mixed between a safety and linebacker, senior Cole Karstetter has also proven also to be a run-stopping presence in the box. He’s earned starts the last three seasons, including nine games last year when he totaled 31 tackles.
EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding likes the experience in his defense that returns eight full-time starters, but said it doesn’t mean too much if they don’t continue to improve.
“Yes, we are veteran. Guys have played a ton, but just because they’re veterans doesn’t mean that suddenly things are going to go well,” Schmedding said. “We’re still trying to instill every little thing, from scheme to technique and practice habits, those types of things.”
Among those aimed improvements are shoring up a run defense that allowed nearly 200 yards a game (98th in FCS) and a third-down defensive percentage (38.7) that was 76th.
“A year more of experience. That helps. We have more depth. We’re trying to get better everyday,” Fetter said.
“These are fun guys to coach. They come to work, take pride in their work. Great teammates.”
Kupp said he is ready to lead the group.
“I feel good and really want to be able to lead these guys,” he said. “Be an emotional leader, making sure the younger guys know what they’re doing.”
Chargers cut Havili
Former Eastern Washington defensive end and buck linebacker Albert Havili was released from the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday.
The Federal Way High grad signed a rookie free agent contract with the Chargers after going undrafted last spring. He saw limited time in 24-17 preseason loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.
Havili was a four-year letterwinner and All-Big Sky Conference selection for the Eagles.