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EWU spring football: Eagles continue to tinker with new defense

Getting back to the drawing board is no simple matter, as the Eastern Washington defensive coaches and players are learning this spring.

The hard work began last winter, when after some deliberation, the Eagles decided to scrap the 4-3 scheme and employ a nickel formation as their base defense.

“We went through a plan, mapped out a process to go through it all, with different ideas, and looked at what we were doing well and what we needed to do better,” new EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said.

Last year, the Eagles played well in most games but still finished near the bottom of the Football Championship Subdivision in several key areas, including red-zone defense (110th) and third-down defense (89th). In its 59-46 FCS playoff loss to Illinois State, Eastern gave up touchdowns on nine straight drives.

Something had to change. Long meetings among the coaches got everyone on the same page – including the players, who according to Schmedding have embraced the new nickel scheme.

“It’s fun to play,” safety Zach Bruce said.

There were several reasons for the change, including recent game results and the Eagles’ personnel strengths and weaknesses.

There was another reason.

“If you stand still, you’re going to get passed,” coach Beau Baldwin said.

The players certainly aren’t staying put. Unlike the 4-3 Cover 2 scheme, the nickel emphasizes pressure on the quarterback. With five defensive backs, the pressure can come from more directions.

“We feel like we’re running downhill more,” said Bruce, a redshirt junior from Spokane.

During the Eagles’ first spring scrimmage, roughly 70 percent of the calls were pressures.

“That gives us a lot more time,” Bruce said.

So far the results have been uneven. In that first scrimmage on April 11, the EWU offense was held to 123 yards on 40 plays. Last week, it got even, torching the defense for 550 yards in 85 plays.

And so it figures to go all the way to the season opener at Oregon on Sept. 5. For now, the players are getting “general concepts,” Schmedding said.

“We don’t need 100 different calls. We just have to make sure they understand the concepts.” Schmedding said.

The nickel has several advantages over the 4-3 Cover 2, which is more of a read-and-react scheme. Having five defensive backs allows better coverage along the sideline, where the Eagles have been vulnerable. It also brings more speed to the point of attack,

Many teams employ a nickel against likely passing plays. The faster defensive backs are better at covering pass patterns and match up against offenses that send four or five receivers on pass routes. This usually happens when the team on offense is trailing and needs to move the ball in a hurry with passes while trying to catch up. 

The nickel is vulnerable to running plays because it doesn’t place as many players near the line of scrimmage and the smaller defensive backs usually aren’t as strong at tackling as linebackers and linemen.

The Eagles are getting around this by using safety Todd Raynes, a 210-pound senior safety, as a rover. That means he can serve as a third linebacker and allow Schmedding to shift into a 4-3 in short-yardage situations. Linebacker John Kreifels also is getting reps at the rover position.

“The biggest thing is this will allow us to play our base defense on a ton more snaps,” Schmedding said. “The game is not about having bigger bodies but going faster, to err on the side of speed.”

For Schmedding, the goals through spring ball include improving overall fundamentals, getting off blocks and covering.

“We’re seeing kids take some strides,” Schmedding said.

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