Young defense progressing for Eastern


File Photo

Redshirt-sophomore defensive back Mark Williams returns an interception for a touchdown in Eastern’s 22-20 season opening win over Indiana State last season. Williams is one of three preseason all-conference selections for Eastern, the only one on defense.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Year two of Cary Fowler’s tenure as defensive coordinator of the Eastern football team is about to begin. In this upcoming season, Fowler and the rest of the Eastern coaching staff expect to see lots of progress from a defensive unit that was already one of the best in the OVC last season.

Last year the Eastern defense kept the team in a lot of games while the offense struggled to put points on the board. The defense was young, but played to a level that hid their youth, Fowler did not even realize how young the unit actually was. 

This season, Fowler hopes the progression of the young players can open up the playbook more.

“I looked back (at how young we were) and was like ‘oh goodness,’” Fowler said. “We were very simple in year one in the defense that we put in. Basically, we ran 80 percent of the same call where we were getting them lined up and getting them to play hard.”

The progression is already starting to show in fall camp, in one practice alone Fowler was able to run three blitzes out of the playbook that he has run for 22 years, that the team was simply just too young to run last season. 

“I think it’s the progression of what we can do, being able to disguise a lot of coverages,” Fowler said. “It’s not like we’re going to do a lot of things different, but we’ll add things that will set us up to probably create more turnovers and that’s what we’re really emphasizing at this point.”

Progress has already been seen from a lot of players in camp this fall, but the name that has continuously been mentioned in every conversation is sophomore linebacker Dytarious Johnson.

Johnson was wrecking everything in his path in camp last spring and during the spring football game where he led the game with nine tackles. He did not however start a game for the Panthers last season, but at this point in the fall it would be tough to believe if he did not start every game for the Panthers in the upcoming season.

“(Johnson) could be as good of a football player as anyone in FCS football and I’ll stack that up with anyone in the country. I don’t think anyone else has a 6 foot 2 inch inside linebacker that can run a 4.6 (40-yard dash),” Fowler said. “He is probably one of the best football players I have coached.”

Joining Johnson as a linebacker that coaches have said has taken leaps in progression is redshirt-junior Camden Meade.

The linebacking position around Johnson runs deep with redshirt-junior Joe Caputo, who started all 11 games last season, and redshirt-junior Camden Meade competing for the job next to Johnson.

Meade is another linebacker that both Fowler and head coach Kim Dameron both mentioned as being a player who has progressed this fall.

“Camden Meade has beat out all the guys at linebacker,” Fowler said. “Right now the starting linebackers are (Johnson) and (Meade), just because (Meade) comes out and lays it on the line for me everyday. He has gotten better and better and better, so I am excited about that.”

In the secondary the Panthers return their lone all-conference defensive player in redshirt-sophomore Mark Williams.

The secondary is admittedly thin, but talented. Williams will be joined by redshirt-sophomore Raymond Crittenden, who was injured all of last season, and is a guy that both Dameron and Fowler mentioned as a guy that can make a big impact this season.

Josh Price is someone on the defensive line Dameron said he expects to have a good year. Price, along with Austin Johnson on the edge and Terrell Greer up the middle will all try to make an impact on the line. North Dakota College of science transfer James Ubaike will join Greer up the middle.

“Up front I feel good about our combinations if we can stay healthy,” Dameron said. 

No freshman would start for Eastern on defense in a ideal world, but this is not an ideal world and injuries and other things sometimes force freshman into big roles. 

With that said, freshman safety Darius Waddell and freshman defensive lineman Zavion Moore are both players Fowler believes could make an impact on defense if their numbers are called upon. 

Waddell played for the U.S. National Select team this summer and so far in camp as lived up to the big expectations he brought with him to Eastern. He has made multiple big plays in the secondary, deflecting passes and on a couple of occasions he has delivered some big hits. 

Moore too had big expectations coming out of high school, he was named the class 6A/7A defensive player of the year in Arkansas his senior season, and has also proven at Eastern why he earned that title. 

It is very possible that both Waddell and Moore could be a part of the next group of Eastern defensive players to make big progressions moving forward for the program. 

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]