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Eagles’ Washburn anchors defense

Even with his football career at a crossroads, losing wasn’t an option for Tyler Washburn.

That’s a big reason he’s playing linebacker at Eastern Washing- ton. Washburn, in turn, is a big reason the Eagles are chasing a second national championship in three years.

After winning two state high school titles at powerhouse Skyline of Sammamish, Washburn was recruited in the fall of 2007 by Eastern coach Paul Wulff, who didn’t stop after he became head coach at Washington State. Newly hired Eastern coach Beau Baldwin joined the chase.

“It really came down to WSU and Eastern,” said Washburn, who wasn’t at a loss for words to explain his decision.

“The allure of playing at a big school was something I was interested in, but their (WSU’s) record told me something else.

“After winning all the time at Skyline, it might be a different world, to maybe not winning much at all.”

A recruiting trip to Cheney sealed the deal for Washburn, who wanted to get away – but not too far – from Seattle.

“That recruiting trip was the big swing for me, just being here and seeing the family and how tight the guys were. They were so incredibly welcoming.”

So much so that his younger brother Nick, a running back, signed with the Eagles two years later.

Washburn credits former EWU (now Idaho) assistant Torey Hunter – a “hilarious jokester” – for helping recruit not only himself, but several other linebackers now on the roster.

After redshirting that fall, Washburn played in all 12 Eastern games in 2009, including four as an injury replacement for senior Kyle Wilkins. Later he had a season-high 11 tackles against Montana State.

In 2010, he started all 15 games, and came up with one of the biggest plays of the season in the FCS semifinals against Villanova. With the Eagles clinging to a 27-24 lead early in the fourth-quarter, he returned a fumble 15 yards for a touchdown and the eventual winning score to send the Eagles to their first national title game.

“I remember the running back coming through and I was trying to sweep through the guy’s legs,” Washburn recalled. (EWU lineman) David Gaylord was standing there, I see him ripping at the ball, and so I’m waiting, and the ball pops right up and I take it in.”

That was the highlight of the championship season for Washburn, who helped take the Eagles to Frisco, Texas, then suffered an ACL injury in practice before the title game against Delaware.

“Nobody wanted to tell me it was torn,” Washburn said, “but I had a feeling.” He played in the Eagles’ first defensive series “and I moved around OK, but you can’t tackle.

“But it was amazing to see my brothers come back and win.”

Despite the lingering injury, Washburn started three games in 2011 after fellow linebacker Zach Johnson was lost for the season with a knee injury. Washburn had a season-high 12 tackles against Cal Poly in EWU’s 53-51, triple-overtime victory.

Washburn also played running back in high school, and scored three touchdowns in the 2007 title game, but he’s at home on the other side of the line, preferably in the middle of the action. “I’ve grown to love the position, making plays and running from sideline to sideline,” Washburn said.

It doesn’t hurt that Washburn is a natural at middle linebacker. “On the field, he has great change of direction, a good burst,” EWU linebackers coach Josh Fetter said. “He’s just a very good athlete.”

This year, while the Eagles have moved players around to compensate for injuries, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Washburn has managed to stay healthy.

“I’m used to that,” Washburn said. “It seems like every year, you start off with 15 guys on the depth chart and you end up with six. I hope and pray that I’m one of those six.”

He credits strength and conditioning coach Nate Brookreson as “hands-down the reason we’re staying so healthy this year.”

And playing so well. For the Eastern seniors, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons with the 2010 squad, and Washburn doesn’t even try.

“We said it after the Montana game (a 32-26 comeback win on Sept. 29.) “Our receiving corps is better, the defense has moments of real greatness, and if we’re consistent we can be as good as that team.”

Washburn hopes the defense can replicate its effort Oct. 13 at Montana State, when the Eagles beat the No. 2 Bobcats 27-24. “There’s no quit on this team,” Washburn said, mindful of the Eagles’ 5-2 record this season in games decided by a touchdown or less.

But soon, win or lose, it will be time to quit. A year from now Washburn expects to earn his degree in visual communications design and be looking for work, probably back in the Puget Sound area.

“If you’re thinking about five years, putting in half a decade with the team, it definitely goes by fast. You can’t always say move forward, you have to move forward. But sometimes you have to relish those victories and feel good about what you’ve done.”

And what may lie ahead.

“You think a state title is a big deal, but winning a national title is a once in a lifetime,” Washburn said.

He paused, perhaps recalling why he came to Cheney in the first place.

“Maybe twice if we get there again this year.”

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