CHENEY, Wash. -- Eastern Washington University has built a successful football program by recruiting atypical football players, but even head coach Paul Wulff thought the Eagles were pushing it a couple years ago.
That's when the Eagles were pursuing a pair of standout Tacoma athletes to play cornerback, 5-foot-7, 150-pound Isaiah Trufant out of Wilson and 5-foot-8, 155-pound Jesse Hendrix out of Lakes.
"When we recruited them I was concerned about (their size) but as I've watched them play, I no longer have a concern, not at all," Wulff said. "I think their performance is the bottom line. ... They've got great quickness and they're very instinctive football players."
"Everybody knows we're small but they respect us," Hendrix said. "Big things come in small packages."
Now sophomores, Hendrix and Trufant reading right to left as in right cornerback and left cornerback, respectively are a big part in the vastly improved defense of the 3-2 Eagles.
The mighty mites make up for their size with speed (Trufant runs 40-yards in 4.31 seconds, Hendrix in 4.34), jumping ability (40-inch verticals) and "the techniques the coaches teach us on the field," Hendrix said.
But it's more than that.
"Naturally as cornerbacks you have the mindset, the confidence, that you can always stick with the receiver but you have to have a short memory," Trufant said. "As a corner you're going to get beat, but you have to go on to the next play."
"I tell all the guys at the beginning of the year they're going to get beat for a touchdown," EWU secondary coach Jimmy Lake said. "The key is what are you going to do? How are you going to react to that situation? . . . I think we have the kind of kids in the secondary who have a short memory and can go on to the next play. I try to instill confidence in the players. . . . I tell them it's OK to get beat (but) the percentages are on our side (if they do their assignments right)."
Each one carries a grade point average above 3.2 (Trufant in computer science, Hendrix in biology) and can recall being burned and the lesson learned:
"It really opened my eyes, you can't take one play off," Hendrix said. "If you have a coverage you're supposed to be in ... if you're doing everything right and you're on your man and they make a catch, it's not too bad."
Both players achieved their goal of starting as redshirt freshmen, which concerned Lake more than their size.
"In 2001 when we were decimated in the secondary and they were redshirting we could have easily pulled them off and they could have done a good job," Lake said. "We waited and in the spring it was pretty apparent they were the top kids we had out there. My reservation was with how young they were, but we knew that someone had to be a 4.2 to run by them. There's not anyone in the conference faster than them."
Becoming starters was attributed to consistency of performance and a competitiveness that has them trying to outdo each other.
"We like to see who can get the most picks, the most bad downs out there," Trufant said.
Hendrix, who started all 11 games, broke up eight passes and intercepted another to go with 47 tackles last year. Trufant, who had his season cut short two games because of a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, had 30 tackles, broke up two passes and intercepted three.
This year, Hendrix has 24 tackles and nine breakups, Trufant 24 tackles, seven breakups and a pick, numbers that suggest the Eagles' run defense is better and they're up to the challenge of passing offenses.
"What makes them so good is they're both tough," Lake said. "They'll come up and hit you. They're both physical with receivers. They're both strong for their size. They both have unbelievable leaping ability. They both have unbelievable bursts. They're both confident."
Both have heard their share of taunts because of their size but they usually have the last word.
"There's always a little trash talk going on at the beginning of the game," Trufant said. "They'll say things like, `Get this little guy off me.' I don't talk too much on the field but as the game goes on they pretty much quit."
Hendrix said, "I'm more of a talker on the field. I try to get in their head. I try to use that to my advantage."
Trufant played basketball and Hendrix wrestled in high school but both competed in track, where their competitiveness shows, as state placing jumpers.
Hendrix was on the State 3A champion 400 relay team that was anchored by superstar Washington wide receiver Reggie Williams (not a bad practice partner for a high school DB). Wilson was disqualified in the relay finals of the 4A meet but Trufant claims the Rams could have outrun the Lancers.
Both smile like the true friends they have become as two-year roommates in college rather than fierce rivals.
"We knew each other but we didn't hang out," Hendrix said.
While Hendrix was learning from Williams, Trufant had a pretty good role model to follow in his brother Marcus, an All-American at Washington State and first-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks.
Neither mind the shadow cast by the elder Trufant, who passes on tips of the trade, for which Hendrix is an appreciative benefactor.
"I'm very proud of him," little brother said of the 5-11, 199-pound professional. "I always like to hear something good about my family ... The main thing he talked about is having a short memory."
So Hendrix, nicknamed "The Law" for locking down receivers, and Trufant, called "Tri-Six" for his uniform number, have, other than size, every asset and advantage of a great cornerback -- including an appreciative coach.
"I really believe in recruiting kids like those," Wulff said. "They typify what I like and believe in as players. You need to be a football player first before you need to fit numbers, meaning height and weight. Good football players come in all shapes and sizes. I believe that's what our team is like."
They are, as they say their shared first nickname suggests, "A match made in heaven."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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