PALATINE HILL -- The linebacker position has been one of Lewis & Clark's legacy units in the last decade or so. Entering 2019, the Lewis & Clark Pioneers will have a greatly experienced middle linebacker once again as the season kicks off on Saturday at Pomona-Pitzer.
The Pioneers are entering the fifth year under head coach Jay Locey and bring back Randy Heath for his second season as the team's linebackers coach.
Melvin Ho'omanawanui returns for his fourth season and is as healthy as he's been in the last two years. Off a season-ending knee injury as a sophomore, Ho'omanawanui returned last season and played in eight games, totaled 19 tackles and a career-high three sacks. He'll be looked upon as the leader of the linebacker group with an inside-and-out understanding of defensive coordinator Eric Jackson's scheme. Mark Figueroa and Robert Nakihei join Ho'omanawanui as senior linebackers. Figueroa has been battling an injury in fall practice so far and will seek to return to the lineup after he competed in three games last year. Nakihei was in a career-high eight games as a junior and has been showing a lot entering his senior season. He'll be a big contributor on special teams, too.
Graduated senior Pete Lahti left one of the biggest holes in the Pioneers defense. Last year's starting "nickel" - primarily a linebacker role in Jackson's defense, Lahti's vacancy will likely be filled by James Bullock who has the most experience in that spot. Bullock brings many great tools including his coverage ability. He played in seven games and totaled eight tackles last season.
Alex Hensley immediately found time on the field as a freshman and will likely do so for many snaps again this season. With multiple skills, he's continuing to gather experience as he grows into his second year. Hensley had the second-most tackles (29) by a freshman in 2018. Marvin Pusung-Zita has a solid understanding of the defense and has all the physical ability needed. He'll look to get on the field for the first time after missing all of his first collegiate year.
With a total freshman class of 27 plus three transfers, all of Lewis & Clark's position groups will see many newcomers this year. Denzel Baker is one of the three transfers, joining the Pios from Puget Sound. A natural playmaker, Baker will see a lot of his time as part of the defensive line, but will also take snaps in a linebacking role. Jake Bushman is one of two from Portland's Clackamas High School, the 2017 big-school state champion, to join the team after former Clackamas head coach Joe Bushman, Jake's father, joined the Pioneers coaching staff. A former two-time all-state selection, Bushman is someone the coaching staff believes will be impactful at the collegiate level. He has already shown leadership through his continuous positivity. Josh Dozier is from San Diego and a former all-league selection. He brings solid physical attributes to the position. Brandon Hwa also joined the team from California and hails from Elk Grove. He was an all-league first-team selection his senior year and chose Lewis & Clark in part because of the environment, academic offerings and the direction of the football program. From Houston, Mitchell Robbins is former eight-man competitor in high school who attacks the football. He was a two-time all-state pick. Zian Lusero joins the Pios as a former all-conference choice from Denver. He chose Lewis & Clark, in part, because of the amazing coaches, great team atmosphere and academic opportunity.
Lewis & Clark opens the year in southern California against Pomona-Pitzer on Saturday. The Pioneers won 40-29 in the last meeting there in 2017. Lewis & Clark's other non-conference game is the home opener on Sept. 21 against Whittier. The Pios will try for two-in-a-row against the Poets after a 46-27 victory last year.
The Northwest Conference schedule begins on Oct. 5 at Pacific Lutheran.
Lewis & Clark's home schedule includes Homecoming and Family Weekend on Oct. 26. The Pioneers will try for a third consecutive win over Willamette. The game follows defending NWC champion Whitworth's visit on Oct. 12 and precedes the Senior Day game with Puget Sound on Nov. 16.