The ball is back in Fred Salanoa’s hands, and the former Eastern Washington quarterback couldn’t be happier.
A decade and a half after he starred for the Eagles, Salanoa is back in Cheney and working with old teammate Aaron Best.
Back in 1999, Best was an All-American center, hiking the ball to Salanoa. Now Best is the Eagles’ head coach. One of his first moves was to make the quiet-spoken Salanoa, a longtime high school coach in Hawaii, his offensive coordinator.
“He’s a mild-mannered guy, but when you get him in the competitive arena, he has his claws out,” Best said as spring ball began at Eastern.
“He has the ability to flip that switch,” Best said.
Then again, so did former Eastern offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, another mild-mannered former high school coach who overcame the doubters last year by taking a new quarterback and offensive line and fashioning a record-breaking offense.
“He made us think outside the box,” Best said of Taylor, now the offensive coordinator at Utah.
Taylor’s success makes the path easier for Salanoa, who comes to Cheney after 13 seasons as head coach at Radford High School in Honolulu.
Not that Best has any doubts.
“I have a ton of respect for high school coaches,” Best said.
Following a state title season in 2015, Salanoa left to spend more time with family, including his wife Malevine and the “X-Tribe” of seven daughters: Xeryah, age 16; Xevani, 12; Xehlia, 10; Xeyana, 9; Xenesa, 5; and twins Xenyah and Xenyla, 3).
A year later, Best got the job and the two old friends were talking more often than ever – which is saying a lot.
“Aaron and I have kept in contact ever since college,” said the 38-year-old Salanoa, who said he’s caught most of the Eagles’ games on TV in Hawaii.
For Salanoa, getting the coordinator’s job was tied to “the trust factor between Aaron and me, knowing that I ran this offense in Hawaii.”
And what kind of offense is that? Ideally, it’s one that not only gets the Eagles to the playoffs, but also get them over the December playoff hump.
In last year’s semifinal loss to Youngstown, Eastern ran just 22 plays in the second half as the Penguins ball-controlled their way to the FCS title game.
It wasn’t the first time. From 2012-14, Sam Houston State, Towson and Illinois State were able to knock off Eastern, thanks partly because of a superior running game.
On the other hand, perhaps Eastern doesn’t get to last year’s semifinals without throwing the ball 620 times (for 5,614 yards and 54 touchdowns) while running on just 442 occasions.
More than anything, Eastern is looking for a comfortable middle ground, one that keeps opposing defenses uncomfortable.
With Salanoa and quarterback Gage Gubrud at the controls, Eastern will still throw the ball. However, the running game will be more than a change-up.
“As a quarterback, I would love to throw the ball on every down,” said Salanoa, who finished his career in 2001 as the second-leading quarterback in Eastern history, with 4,973 career yards.
“I don’t think we have to take out the excitement, but we are going to look more at how we can get through the month of December and get back to the national championship,” Salanoa said.
The work began in earnest this week in spring drills. Salanoa doubles as tight ends coach while familiarizing himself with the other players.
“I’m very excited to be back,” Salanoa said.
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