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Eti Ena building EWU defensive line one relationship at a time

EWU football defensive line coach Eti Ena, runing drills during the first day of spring practice, brings a lot of energy to the Eagles according to head coach Beau Baldwin. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU football defensive line coach Eti Ena, runing drills during the first day of spring practice, brings a lot of energy to the Eagles according to head coach Beau Baldwin. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For new Eastern Washington defensive line coach Eti Ena, it’s always been about relationships.

It’s relationships that got him into the coaching profession, kept him there and this year brought him back to the Inland Northwest one more time.

“The main thing I’ve learned about coaching is the relationships with the players and their families, and the people you meet along the way,” Ena said.

He’s met plenty, starting with a family that’s been playing football since before his was born. Uncle Tali Ena was a standout running back at Washington State and an early influence on Eti.

The common denominator is the Inland Northwest, which Ena, now 42, didn’t see until his teenage years.

As a high school senior in 1991, Ena and younger brother Justin found themselves playing 8-man ball in Inchelium, Washington, winning a state title and fueling Eti’s love of the game. While Justin went on to play at BYU and the NFL, Eti played in junior college and eventually transferred to EWU.

A shoulder injury cost him a chance to play at Eastern, but Ena went on to coach high school ball in Shelton, Washington. In 2005, he returned to earn his degree – and the respect of the assistant coaches under Paul Wulff.

One of them was then-offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.

“We’ve known him for quite a while, but he also brings a lot of fresh ideas and incredible energy,” said Baldwin, who hired Ena as defensive front coordinator in January to replace Ryan Sawyer.

Perhaps more important, Baldwin says Ena “has that ability to work with a number of different people – and that’s not always easy.”

Case in point: Ena is working with 16 defensive linemen of all shapes and temperaments, to rave reviews.

Says senior nose tackle Matt Sommer: “The goal is to get better, and coach Ena has been awesome – and he has great insight.”

The most important insight – and one shared by Baldwin – is the importance of fundamentals. Ena believes that the Eagles will regain their swagger “only if we become better fundamentally – you’ve got to crawl before you can walk.”

Ena has carried that credo through stops at Eastern Oregon (2006-8), Idaho (2009-12) and the past three years at Big Sky Conference rival Cal Poly.

At Idaho , Ena coached linemen who signed with NFL teams: Aaron Lavarias (New England Patriots), Michael Cosgrove (Detroit Lions) and Benson Mayowa (Seattle Seahawks, now with the Oakland Raiders).

Ironically, Ena was with the Vandals when they faced Eastern in the season opener in 2012. The Eagle defense, including his nephew Paul Ena on the D-line, shut down Idaho 20-3 in the Kibbie Dome.

In his first season at Cal Poly, Ena coached defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, who earned eight All-America honors and was named co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference. Grosz later signed with the Houston Texans.

Ena said he’s excited about the new challenge.

“The players have done a great job to this point, and I’m thrilled with how serious they are about their game.”

“The culture that’s been set here has been an easy one to come in to,” Ena said.

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