If Eastern Washington’s defense is a work in progress, the man in charge is up to the task.
For new EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, football has been a labor of love ever since the day the former University High star tried to walk on in Cheney.
“I was just too slow,” Schmedding said. However, he’s a quick study at everything else, which has served him and the Eagles well for almost two decades.
Now the 37-year-old Schmedding is in charge of rejuvenating Eastern’s defense. By all accounts, he’s approached the task with passion, inclusiveness and, above all, a discerning eye.
“His attention to detail is better than anyone I’ve ever been around,” said head coach Beau Baldwin, who promoted Schmedding last winter. “He sees all 22 players as well as I’ve ever seen, and what they do, in every situation.”
Case in point: Last year, with Schmedding in charge of special teams, the Eagles blocked punts in four straight games. The common refrain from the players was, “Coach Schmedds saw something on film.”
That’s the reward for all those hours in the film room, which comprises the bulk of a coach’s 16- to 18-hour workdays during the season. “It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s nice when it does,” Schmedding said.
A quick transition to coaching
A state runner-up wrestler and standout lineman, Schmedding enrolled at Eastern in the fall of 1996 with hopes of playing college ball. As quickly as those hopes were dashed, he reinvented himself as a coach. By the age of 20 he was coaching back at University High and earning his degree in health education.
By 2002, he was a teacher and assistant coach at U-Hi, running the Titans defense at the age of 24. Life was comfortable, but not for long.
Single at the time, he got the chance in 2004 to be a graduate assistant at Eastern. “It was a financial gamble, but I told myself that if I was going to do it, that was the time,” Schmedding said.
It also was a time to gain some diversified experience. As a grad assistant, Schmedding worked with linebackers and defensive backs. Promoted to a full-time assistant in 2007, he stayed with the safeties, including two-time All-Big Sky performer Bryan Jarrett.
The next two years he was back coaching linebackers, including Buchanan Award runner-up J.C. Sherritt. Since then he’s worked with safeties, including All-America picks Matt Johnson and Tevin McDonald – all the while overseeing special teams for the past seven years.
The results have been impressive. Last year, Eastern ranked third in FCS with four blocked punts and was 10th in net punting (38.4 yards), 15th in kickoff-return average (22.8) and 28th in punt returns (11.8).
“Taking over special teams was the biggest thing to making me a better coach,” Schmedding said.
A new approach to defense
When Baldwin offered him the defensive coordinator’s job, Schmedding was “ecstatic” – for about 10 minutes.
“After that, my only thought was getting a plan going,” said Schmedding, who was tasked with improving a group that struggled last year. The Eagles ranked 95th out of 125 FCS teams in total defense, giving up 442 yards a game, 86th in third-down conversion defense (42.1 percent), and 110th in red zone defense (opponents scored on 89 percent of their trips inside the EWU 20-yard line).
Schmedding sat down with the other defensive coaches – Ryan Sawyer, Brian Strandley, Josh Fetter and Cherokee Valeria – and built chemistry along with coverages.
“I wanted to make sure (the transition) was good for everyone,” said Schmedding, who said that the switch to a 4-2-5 nickel scheme has been almost seamless for the staff and the players.
“I put together a plan, but then we discuss everything. The biggest thing is to have everyone on the same page,” Schmedding said.
That includes the players, who embraced the change even before spring ball.
“We’re having a lot of fun, and the nickel gives us as DBs a little more time in coverage,” said redshirt junior Zach Bruce.
The 4-2-5 offers several positives: It’s more flexible than the Eagles’ old 4-3 Cover 2, and allows multiple fronts, more angles for blitzes and puts better athletes on the field.
“We feel like we’re running downhill more,” said senior captain Todd Raynes, who was moved from safety to the new roverback position, closer to the line of scrimmage.
The 215-pound Raynes has a combination of size and speed that Schmedding says will allow more looks without substitutions – a big plus against hurry-up offenses.
There’s hard work ahead – the Eagles gave up 731 yards at Oregon last week – but Schmedding is confident.
“There’s not going to be a magic scheme, but we just want to put the players in the best position to succeed,” Schmedding said.
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