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Eastern Washington University Football

New EWU defensive coordinator Eric Sanders uses spring camp to emphasize playing with confidence, heart

Newly promoted Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Eric Sanders is trying to get the most of a group that showed flashes last year, but was inconsistent.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

It is early April, and unsurprisingly, Eric Sanders has lost his voice.

It happened last August, during his first preseason camp at Eastern Washington. And here the Eagles are, early in spring practices, and their newly promoted defensive coordinator can’t holler effectively.

“I guess I am what’s called a vocal abuser,” Sanders said last week. “I just yell too much at practice I guess.”

One of the problems for Sanders is that the alternatives just aren’t appealing. He is trying to instill a new energy – an attacking spirit – in a defense that has, for two years in a row, ranked among the worst in the Football Championship Subdivision. Whistles just don’t do the trick.

“I probably elongated the issue trying to holler through having lost my voice,” he said. “I’m not much of a whistle blower, so that leads to more yelling.”

Yet this isn’t the sort of yelling one might expect. He’s not angry, and he’s actually known to talk about feelings quite a bit. Sanders just cares a whole lot and has a lot to say to his players, which now include not just the linebackers but the entire defense.

“We’re not going to run any faster than we run, and we’re not going be any bigger than we are,” Sanders said. “But can we be the best versions of ourselves, and that requires confidence.”

Confidence is exactly what Sanders is trying to instill in the Eagles during spring practices, which run through the end of the month at Roos Field in Cheney.

“He’s bringing the good back into the defense,” said seventh-year senior cornerback Darrien Sampson, who is playing for his fourth defensive coordinator at Eastern. “Playing fast is the biggest thing for him. I love what he’s doing. He’s bringing versatility. I am excited to see how it molds into the real season and how it plays out.”

Last season, the Eagles defense showed some improvement over a dismal 2022 campaign, but it still ranked 116th nationally in total defense and 115th in points allowed.

Jeff Copp was not brought back for a third season, and instead Sanders was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.

“He’s intentional about what he does,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of Sanders. “He’s been around some different schemes. He can utilize personnels. He knows football. He relates to kids. He coaches a position. He’s got energy. He’s organized. He’s ready.”

Newly promoted Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Eric Sanders is trying to get the most of a group that showed flashes last year, but was inconsistent.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
Newly promoted Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Eric Sanders is trying to get the most of a group that showed flashes last year, but was inconsistent. (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)

Sanders has been coaching football for 20 years at various levels, including stops in the NFL and at four different college programs.

While this is technically his first time being a defensive coordinator, it’s not the first time he accepted such a position: In 2016 he was hired as Southern Utah’s defensive coordinator.

“While I was on a plane ride there, I got a job (offer from) the Cleveland Browns,” Sanders said.

A friend at Southern Utah told him he needed to take the NFL job, and he did. He coached the Browns linebackers and nickelbacks for three years instead. Then, he spent a year with the New York Jets as a defensive assistant before coaching inside linebackers at Stanford from 2022 to 2022.

All that to say, this is technically the first time Sanders is actually doing the job of defensive coordinator.

“It’s very busy. I expected that, but there’s a lot to do,” Sanders said. “That’s how it goes … I am figuring it out bit by bit.”

Looking back at last season, when Sanders coached Eastern’s linebackers, he pointed to the Fresno State game as exemplifying the type of defense he wants the Eagles to play.

The Bulldogs won nine games last season, but they needed overtime to beat the Eagles, 34-31, on a warm September evening in Fresno. The Eagles held them to 365 yards, fewer than six other Division I teams did.

“I watch film of that game, and I’d take that film anywhere,” Sanders said. “This is who our guys are. … We were all over the field in that game, playing our hearts out. I am so proud of our effort and performance. That’s how we want to play.”

Now the challenge is to muster a group that is mostly the same as last year’s to perform better than it did last year.

“We’re not asking to be in the top 5 in the nation,” Best said. “That’s not what we’re asking. We just need to be sure we stop the run, we tackle the football, turn the football over, play good in the red zone and everything else will take care of itself.”

In Sanders’ estimation, the Eagles played well-intentioned defense last year, but there were times when the team tried to play too perfectly. That, he said, is a recipe for disaster, because even if a player abandons his gap too early in an effort to help his teammates, he’s still abandoning his gap.

Overcompensation, then, is something Sanders wants players to avoid doing.

Instead, he just wants them to attack.

“Good defense attacks, hits hard and reduces space in the run game because we’re hitting guys and moving them backwards,” Sanders said. “The No. 1 goal is to attack more. We’re not going to stop attacking.”