April 8, 2009
By Tim Booth
SEATTLE -- All those pads felt a little strange to E.J. Savannah.
Through all the workouts during his year of exile from the Washington football program, Savannah never threw on the shoulder pads he used so efficiently as one of the top linebackers in the Pac-10 Conference.
When they rested on his broad frame earlier this week, everything felt right again.
"It feels a little weird," he said. "(But) just like riding a bike you never forget."
There's plenty Savannah would like to forget from the last year. His broken arm from an off-field incident. His conflict with then-Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, and the eventual decision that Savannah would no longer be part of the Huskies' program while Willingham was in charge.
"Coach Willingham," Savannah says, struggling to find the right words. "I don't even want to get into that."
But Savannah's back now, given a second chance under new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, part of the "clean slate" Sarkisian promised everyone associated with the program following its 0-12 debacle in 2008.
Savannah very easily could be somewhere else right now. He could have followed the path of former high school and Washington teammate J.R. Hasty, who had a similar fallout with Willingham and transferred to Division II Central Washington before the start of last season and played immediately.
Savannah didn't want to take a step back. After getting released from his scholarship back in September, Savannah balked at the idea of enrolling at another school. He worked out religiously, six days a week of lifting and training, in the hope of getting another chance to play in the Pac-10.
When Willingham was fired in October, effective the end of the season, Savannah's hope grew.
"I love competition and that wouldn't have given me too much competition," Savannah said of possibly going to a lower division. "I don't think I ever considered that route."
Part of Sarkisian's pitch to athletic director Scott Woodward was opening up a program that became rigid during Willingham's tenure. That meant giving players who fell out of favor a second chance.
Sarkisian also knew of Savannah's talents. Two years ago, while Sarkisian was offensive coordinator at USC, he had to game plan against Savannah when he was one of the top young linebackers in the conference. That was the year that Savannah was voted Washington's defensive MVP and recorded 111 tackles, one of the few bright spots on an otherwise beleaguered defense.
"Playmaker. (A) guy that really flew around and got to the football, created havoc and instinctive," Sarkisian said of Savannah. "And I think he's bringing those same things out here."
The meeting between Savannah and Sarkisian following the coach's hiring last December was brief. Savannah remembers going into Sarkisian's office and having the head coach tell him that when winter quarter began in early January, Savannah would again be a Husky.
Savannah devoted himself to the Huskies' winter conditioning program and learning the new system being implemented by defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
"I think he's progressing well," linebackers coach Mike Cox said. "He's done a nice job in the offseason. He's cut some weight. He's moving better and he's done very well in practice."
Savannah is enjoying the new pace of practices. The Huskies don't need any extra conditioning at the end of sessions because of the constant 75-yard sprints the team does in between drills from the field inside Husky Stadium to a practice field a brief sprint away. On the first day in full pads, the only players off limits from full hits were the quarterbacks and those injured players in red jerseys.
"This is definitely a new program," Savannah said. "I'm not coming back to the same program at all."