Built like a safety with the speed of an offensive lineman, Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding jokes that his playing days at University High were underwhelming.
He was tough, falling a match short of a 215-pound state wrestling title in 1996 after weighing in at 200. He was solid between the hashmarks, too, but Idaho and Eastern Washington didn’t want an undersized, marginally athletic lineman.
Schmedding toyed with the notion of playing Division III or NAIA football, but opted to stay in Spokane Valley and help out then-U-Hi head coach Mike Ganey.
The wet-behind-the-ears assistant quickly found a kindred spirit in football-obsessed senior Heath Pulver, a two-way standout for the Titans in 1999.
“He was a football nerd, and that stands out to a coach,” Schmedding said of Pulver, who redshirted a season at Eastern Oregon in 2000 before going the coaching route.
Two decades later, Schmedding and Pulver, now EWU’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, are playing key roles in the program’s run at a second FCS national title.
EWU (12-2), which faces top-ranked North Dakota State (14-0) at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, saw second-year head coach Aaron Best earn Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year distinction.
Known for its gaudy offensive numbers, former EWU head coach and former offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and current offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder have received much acclaim.
This year, Schmedding and Pulver have also been among the FCS level’s best at their respective positions.
Schmedding’s senior-loaded defense led the Big Sky in points allowed in conference play (16.8 per game), ranks second in the country in turnovers forced (32) and leads the nation in defensive touchdowns (6).
Pulver has helped prep kicker and punter Roldan Alcobendas – winner of the Fred Mitchell Award, given to the country’s best non-FBS kicker – who has yet to miss a field goal this season (15 for 15). His snapper, Curtis Billen, was also an All-Big Sky Conference selection.
Kickoff man Andre Slyter’s leg has accounted for the third-most touchbacks (47) in the FCS this season, and the the Eagles’ kickoff (18.65 yards allowed per return) and punt (10.29 yards allowed per return) defenses yielded one score apiece.
Pulver’s two tight ends, red-zone targets Henderson Belk and Jayce Gilder, have hauled in a combined 32 receptions for 488 yards and nine touchdowns.
Dozens of coordinators and assistants have trickled through EWU, but few were groomed in its backyard.
Schmedding and Pulver have watched each other’s careers blossom since sharing a sideline in the Greater Spokane League.
“I’ve known the Schmedding family a long time because I was best friends with his younger brother,” Pulver said. “Jeff has been a big mentor for me.”
Schmedding, Pulver and Best only current EWU coaches who were on staff in 2010 when EWU clipped Delaware 20-19 in the FCS title game.
“You have to have a little bit of an obsession to do this job,” Schmedding said. “We’re here 16 hours a day the last five months, and you wear a lot of hats here.
“This is where my family is and I’m lucky to be in this position, and in my home area.”
Schmedding got his foot in the door in 2004 as a graduate assistant under Paul Wulff before being promoted to special teams coordinator in 2008 under Baldwin.
“In 2004, my first year, we won the Big Sky and that was a huge deal. Now it’s the point where it’s an expectation,” Schmedding said. “Nobody was tailgating in the parking lot in those days.”
He was named defensive coordinator in 2015, inheriting a young defense gutted by graduation.
Three years after implementing a base 4-2-5 defensive scheme and seeing his first recruiting classes buy into his system, the Eagles have one of the deepest defensive units in the country.
Despite losing six starters to season-ending injuries during the regular season, EWU’s defense allowed an average of 23 points in the playoffs.
“I think the biggest difference with this group is leadership, really,” Schmedding said. “I think we’ve settled on a little bit of a recipe, but it’s ultimately the players making plays this year and there’s been a lot of accountability.”
“And ultimately, I’m not worried about yards, but points matter. If those yards are leading to points, then that’s a different story.”
Pulver’s career began in 2002 alongside Schmedding at U-Hi. In 2003 he joined Montana’s staff as a student assistant before earning his first full-time job as a tight ends coach.
He later spent five seasons as a special teams coach at Colorado State and had a short stint at Cal before returning to Cheney in 2017.
“One the most special things about those two individuals is that neither played college football,” Best said. “Everyone says you can’t do it, if you haven’t done it, I tend to argue that.
“If you can lead, you can lead. With Schmedding, the defense has taken huge strides since last year. Coach Pulver has done everything we’ve asked him to do. He has an All-American kicker and one of the best punters. They’ve done a great job.”
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