Dec. 5, 2006
By Justin Chartrey
When Husky sophomore E.J. Savannah was trying to decide where to go to college, he made his final decision because he "couldn't leave [his] state, or [his] school in need." Not to mention his family.
Arizona and California were hot on his trail, along with a number of other high-profile college football programs.
Toward the end, though, it was between Oregon and the Huskies -- with the Ducks offering him a scholarship first. Willingham had just been hired as the man to head up the UW program, and to the delight of many, he snagged the all-state Bellevue linebacker.
The transition to a team coming off a 1-10 record was a tough one for a member of a team that had won four-straight state championships. In his senior season, he had 72 solo tackles, nine for loss and notched four interceptions, despite missing the end of his season with a shoulder injury.
He also took part in dismantling the No. 1 team in the country, De La Salle, 39-20. They had been unbeaten in their previous 151 games. All of this gave him the mindset to be the best, something Willingham found to be perfect for a team on the rebound.
"The real highlight [of recruiting him] was that he had an open mind about the program," Willingham said. "What this program needs is the conviction and the right thought process. If we have guys that are thinking we can win with energy and conviction, we will be a better team."
Savannah helped the team before he ever set foot on the field by helping to snare his longtime friend and teammate J.R. Hasty away from coach Joe Paterno and Penn State. That gave the team two top-of-the-line recruits to help usher in a new era.
From the outset of his career in purple and gold, Savannah immediately impressed his new teammates and coaches.
"He will be an All-American definitely," said junior Dan Howell. "He has a lot of potential. He's a full football player, and this team will need him down the road. He's a young guy, but the only thing he lacks is game experience."
In his entire first year he never saw the field, something that did not sit well with him. He was still recovering from his injuries and at the time was not ready to play. So he stuck with the red shirt.
That time off the field helped him learn a lot, not only as a teammate and a player, but also as a student.
He credited a lot of his early growth to his coaching staff as well as the older guys on the team. He said that in his freshman year he learned to "bring his hard hat and always hustle" from the longtime seniors Joe Lobendahn and Evan Benjamin.
The redshirt year also gave Savannah a chance to focus on his studies. One of the hardest transitions was learning how to balance practice and school. But, without the burden of traveling with the team, he was able to get a firm handle on life as a student, not just an athlete.
This was just as well, seeing as he promised his mom that he would get a degree in college. For now it looks like sociology is the major of choice, but he hopes to move into a pro football career after college.
His focus has always been on family. Helping pull Washington out of the dregs of Division I football was just one reason for deciding to commit here. The other was out of loyalty to his family.
"Family is really important to me," he said. "I have a little nephew and a niece, and I wanted to see them grow up."
His obligation to his family made the decision a no-brainer, and now he would not change it for the world.
This past season was his first taste of real collegiate football, and he excelled. Bypassing many of the older guys on the team, he became a mainstay on the defense in its nickel packages, and he played in all but three games due to injury.
"He's coming along pretty well," said senior Tahj Bomar. "He just has to keep his focus up remembering his assignments. Next year by this time he will be five-to-10 times better. He's going to be a great player."
Across the board that seems to be the consensus -- that Savannah has all the makings of a great player and athlete.
To make sure that comes to fruition, one senior has taken the freshman under his wing. Seeing a lot of himself in Savannah, Scott White has made it a point to show him the ropes.
Every Thursday during the season, Savannah would head to White's apartment, where they would go over assignments for the next game.
"I just love the guy," White said. "He's a good kid and loves football. He will take this thing to another level. I just challenge him to be better than anyone else before him. He could be one of the all-time greats here."
The senior also loves Savannah's tenacious attitude, saying that "he has no fear and loves competition. If it's USC, fourth and one, he relishes those situations."
Savannah wants only to get better and help the team get better; everything else will fall into place on its own. While being an All-American would be nice, he just wants Washington to get back to the old days, back to winning.
"Anything can happen," he said. "Every year I start I want to go to a bowl game."
That could be as early as next year. With Bomar and White graduating, next season could be his shot at making his mark.
Every player hopes that when he plays on Montlake, he will someday be remembered. When it is all said and done, Savannah's coaches and players think that will be in store for him. He grew up rooting for Washington, he played high school football just a few miles away, and someday, he might be playing on Sunday.
"He has the opportunity to do great things," Willingham said. "I hope that they would say that he is one of the best linebackers to ever [play] at Washington."