YAKIMA, Wash. -- There are challenges and then there’s the situation Ivan Cordova found himself in this summer.
Cordova was hired as Central Washington University’s defensive coordinator in late May and all he had to do was install a new system in the team’s shortened fall practices (they lost several days due to poor air quality) while also trying to replace two All-Americans and another all-region player off a unit that was one of the stingiest in the nation in 2017.
“It was definitely challenging,” Cordova said. “It’s been a work in progress. It took the players some time to really grasp what we were teaching.”
Central did return several defensive starters, led by All-American safety Tyler Hasty, but a few of those, most notably top returning lineman Billy Greer, suffered injuries during camp, slowing the process even more. Given all those circumstances, it shouldn’t have been too surprising that Central surrendered 58 points and 677 yards in a season-opening loss to high-powered Eastern Washington.
Disappointing to be sure but not devastating. In fact, Cordova believes that game has been a springboard for what’s followed.
“They (Eastern) are pretty darn good. It was unfortunate ... to open against them, but looking at the big picture, it will really help us,” he said. “It really opened (the players’) eyes that they need to keep working. It’s why we’ve improved in the last three weeks.”
Central has faced three GNAC opponents since that loss and surrendered a total of 27 points, including one shutout, and allowed an average of 307 yards in recording three one-sided victories heading into Saturday’s nonconference clash against West Texas A&M at Tomlinson Stadium.
“I think we’re right where I expected,” he said. “We’re progressing. We still make mistakes ... but we’ve cleaned a lot of that up along with learning the defense. We’re at the point where we know it but it still takes them a little time to think before reacting. We want to get to the point where it’s instinct for them.”
Head coach Ian Shoemaker praised the work of Cordova and his assistants, particularly given the unexpected number of injuries.
“Coach Cordova stepped into a pretty big challenge,” Shoemaker said. “Some of our better players on that side have been banged up. It’s been challenging with our depth.
“They’re still growing. I’m excited to see where we’ll be when we get healthier.”
“We haven’t had a full group yet,” Cordova said, “but if one guy goes down, the next guy is ready to pick up the flag.”
The seeds of this success stem from Cordova’s ability to install roughly 60 percent of his system in that short window when most coaches would want — even need — to begin that process much earlier.
“You use spring ball to get on the same page. We didn’t have that opportunity,” he said. “Players hadn’t seen it (in practice) before day one of fall camp.
“(Now) I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Another thing Cordova stressed to the players was carving out their own identity.
“I tell them, I’m not like the guy who was here ... (and) a lot of those players who made plays are not here any more,” he said. “It’s a new group and what kind of pride and season are we going to have this year? They’ve embraced the challenge.
“They’re putting in the work and starting to see some of the rewards. We’re going to build our own unit and build something for ourselves.”
For now, that means, as Cordova told the players, to try and get better every day.
“I’m excited where things were the last three weeks,” Shoemaker said. “Now we’ll see where we go as the challenges increase moving forward.”
That starts Saturday against a solid West Texas A&M team, which should provide a good barometer of the defense’s progress.
“I’m incredible proud of the guys. It’s been a testament to how hard the guys are working and how they’re ready to step up,” he said. “We have a long way to grow but when we get there, we can be pretty good. It’s a special and talented group ... (and) we’re definitely going in the right direction.”