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As last senior linebacker standing, Washington State’s Isaac Dotson prepared to ‘play heart out’ in final Apple Cup

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 24, 2017, 11:29 a.m.

PULLMAN – First and foremost, understand this: Isaac Dotson comes from a household of Cougars.

Both of Dotson’s parents, Chrisi and Michael, sport diplomas from Washington State, as do two of his four sisters, Chanel and Stephanie. The oldest, Kalla, attended and played basketball at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

And then there’s Jeunai.

“She’s the black sheep,” Isaac joked.

Of Dotson’s immediate relatives, Jeunai is the only one who falls on the other side of the Apple Cup feud. She attended the University of Washington and the school still writes her paychecks. Jeunai works for the alumni office on the Seattle campus.

So, while the Dotsons might consider themselves allergic to anything painted purple and tinted gold, UW has supplied the Bellevue family with more than a few memorable snapshots. Hec Edmundson Pavilion is also where Michael Dotson, a Spokane native who prepped at Lewis & Clark High, captured the first of two state wrestling titles.

And a little-known fact about Isaac Dotson: he was at Husky Stadium attending a football camp when he made his verbal commitment – not to UW or WSU, but to the University of Nevada. Although, later that day, the Huskies were planning to coax the Newport High (Bellevue) quarterback into playing for them, but Steve Sarkisian didn’t pull the trigger soon enough and Dotson, out of courtesy, didn’t return to camp after lunch because he’d already made the call to Nevada coach Chris Ault.

Now a fifth-year inside linebacker for the Cougars, Dotson is hopeful the UW campus has one more pleasant memory in store for him and his family. Dotson is one of 20 WSU seniors who could cap the regular season with their first win over the Huskies on Saturday in the 110th Apple Cup (5 p.m., FOX). Beating their cross-state nemesis would also mean a Pac-12 North title for Cougars – another bucket-list item for the eldest group of WSU players – and a spot in next Friday’s conference championship game.

“We know all of our goals are in front of us still and obviously it’s a big game but we can’t approach it differently than any other game,” Dotson said last week. “Obviously in the back of our minds, especially for us Washington guys, it’s a little more than that but we’ve got to tone it down and focus on what we’ve got to get done.”

Cougar bloodlines

For the last two years, Dotson’s been an enforcer in the middle of the field for the Cougars, who’ve gradually become one of the country’s top defensive units behind the strength of a strong front seven and a steady crew of linebackers.

Dotson is as sure a tackler as the Cougars have and that should be no surprise: aggression runs in the family and a few of the moves he pulls out on the gridiron were taught on a wrestling mat.

“Maybe a year ago, this (TV) announcer went on and on and on about Isaac’s tackling,” Michael Dotson recalled. “How it was the perfect tackling technique and how it’s like a double leg takedown in wrestling.

“I think from a confidence standpoint, when you’re one on one out in the center of a mat with somebody and everybody’s watching, you can’t hide. It’s just you and that other guy. I think (Isaac) has developed a form of competitive nature as a result of wrestling.”

Four of the five Dotson siblings have had some level of exposure to the sport that landed Michael an athletic scholarship to WSU in the mid-1980s following a decorated prep career at Lewis & Clark, where he believes he was the first athlete from the Greater Spokane League to win state titles as a junior and senior.

Michael’s aspirations of wrestling at UW fizzled when the Huskies shut down their program two years before he graduated from high school – “Thank god,” Chrisi Dotson quipped – so instead he enrolled at WSU and competed for the Cougars.

Michael Dotson poses for a photo while wrestling for Washington State in the mid-1980’s. The father of Cougars inside linebacker Isaac Dotson was a three-time NCAA qualifier. (Courtesy/Chrisi Dotson)
Michael Dotson poses for a photo while wrestling for Washington State in the mid-1980’s. The father of Cougars inside linebacker Isaac Dotson was a three-time NCAA qualifier. (Courtesy/Chrisi Dotson)

Michael was a three-time NCAA and Pac-10 qualifier who earned All-American status as a junior, but he’d probably say his most important feat in Pullman came off the mat during his senior year. That’s when he met Chrisi, who’d transferred to WSU from a school in Chicago and moved into an apartment with an old high school friend. The friend happened to be a statkeeper for the wrestling team.

The program was around just long enough to unite Michael and Chrisi – and it was wildly successful under coach Phil Parker, who came to WSU from Iowa State – but the school dropped the sport in 1986 for Title IX reasons.

That left the Evergreen State without big-time college wrestling – something Michael believes hampered the region more than it may have known at the time.

“Wrestling is one of the only sports that a kid weighing 120 pounds can get his college education paid for,” Michael said. “So it just created opportunities for so many people. You don’t have to be 6-8 and bench 300 pounds and be a tackling machine. It really kind of hurt the local kids.”

But their own son grew into the sport at a young age and then came back to it in middle school. That was enough time for Isaac to pick up some of dad’s old moves.

WSU coach Mike Leach was unaware of Michael’s exploits on the mat. “I didn’t know that,” he said on Monday, “But Isaac looks pretty wrestler-like. He’s got a little WWF in him.”

A QB at heart

A former prep quarterback, Dotson will have a buddy on the enemy sideline this Saturday in the Apple Cup. Drew Sample, an all-conference tight end at UW, used to catch his passes at Newport High.

No more than four miles south of 3A juggernaut Bellevue High, 4A Newport naturally wasn’t a common pit stop for college recruiters, so Michael and Chrisi hoped by sending their son to local passing camps hoping Isaac would get better exposure.

Even though he was often in the shadow of former Skyline High signal-caller Max Browne – a USC commit in the same class – Dotson still found a way to stand out among the region’s signal-callers. He was named the most outstanding quarterback at a Northwest camp held by former WSU QB Jason Gesser and traveled to California for the Elite 11 events put on by 14-year NFL veteran Trent Dilfer.

At one of those camps, 247Sports rated Dotson the fourth-best quarterback – below Browne, but ahead of future Arizona/Baylor starter Anu Solomon and current Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff.

“That kind of caught Dilfer’s eye, like ‘Who is this kid, where did he come from?’” Michael Dotson said.

Dilfer warned Sarkisian’s staff, but the Huskies were too late to the party.

“He was Puget Soud Male Athlete of the Year. His athletic ability and his football success shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone,” Michael said. “Isaac was kind of taken aback by the fact that now they’re calling him and by that time, the Nevada guys were really on him.”

Isaac Dotson, a former quarterback at Bellevue’s Newport High, breaks a tackle as he scrambles for additional yardage. (Courtesy/Chrisi Dotson)
Isaac Dotson, a former quarterback at Bellevue’s Newport High, breaks a tackle as he scrambles for additional yardage. (Courtesy/Chrisi Dotson)

The Huskies brought Dotson to campus for a clinic, but the Newport QB already had designs on playing in Ault’s trademark offense, which was only a year removed from graduating one of college football’s most captivating players: Colin Kaepernick.

“So he committed that day on the UW campus,” Michael said. Added Chrisi: “The coach told him that Sark wanted to come talk to him after their break and Isaac just left basically.”

Michael and Chrisi outfitted the family in Wolf Pack gear that Christmas. Isaac prepared to spend the next four to five years of his life in Reno. But the Nevada pledge received an unfortunate phone call only a few weeks later. Ault was retiring. It was suggested that Dotson thumb through his options.

The Cougars already had an offer on the table but there was no promise Dotson would have a future behind center.

Michael remembers Leach’s home visit: “He laid it out to where he gave Isaac the option. He said ‘I can use you at wide receiver, I can use you at split, I can use you at linebacker, I can use you at safety.’”

Perhaps Dotson’s career on the defensive side of the ball was foreshadowed at a high school camp the Newport team attended in Ellensburg.

“WSU staff were there,” Michael said. “We’d put Isaac on defense, he’d be playing safety and he’d be playing a whale of a game on defense and I’d look over and I’d see one of the WSU coaches on the phone and I’d kind of tease him and say, ‘Hey, he’s a quarterback.’ And the guy’s looking at me, smiling and he says, ‘OK.’”

Carrying the torch

The Cougars pulled the quarterback jersey off Dotson’s back less than a week into fall camp of his true freshman season and sent him over to work with the safeties. Five years and five positions later, he’ll head into the final regular season game of his career as the Cougars’ starting Mike linebacker.

“He really loved playing the QB position, so it was a transition mentally,” Chrisi Dotson said.

Michael chimed in: “It’s kind of like you’re breaking up with your girlfriend and you’re moving a different direction.”

But there have been some perks, too.

“He’s been able to see from the defensive perspective, see the quarterback differently,” Chrisi said. “He sees things maybe all the other defenders don’t see.”

The Cougars are having their best defensive season since Dotson arrived. WSU is giving up just 303.8 yards per game to its opponents. That ranks 11th in the FBS. They have 27 turnovers through 11 games. That ranks third. They’ve accumulated 94 tackles-for-loss – good enough for second in the country.

But it’s been a bittersweet year for Dotson – sweet because the Cougars will finish with no fewer than nine victories and could max out at 12, but bitter because he intended to ride out his senior season with two other fifth-year linebackers who won’t be participating in this Apple Cup because of injury.

Dotson has grown especially close with Peyton Pelluer, the senior Mike backer from Sammamish who suffered a season-ending foot fracture in the third game of the year against Oregon State. When the Cougars lost their leading tackler from 2016, they also lost the telekinetic bond Pelluer and Dotson have established on the gridiron – and possibly by living together since they arrived on the Palouse five years ago.

“Isaac has talked about, when he and Peyton are on the field, they didn’t even have to verbally speak to one another,” Michael Dotson said. “They could look at one another and understand who was going to do what just based on a gesture or something like that. That’s just how in tune the two of them were out on the football field.”

Injury continued to ravage the eldest group of WSU linebackers when the Cougars traveled to Oregon. Nate DeRider, a fifth-year senior and Bellevue High graduate, left the game in Eugene with a lower-body injury and hasn’t played a snap since. Dotson and DeRider were acquaintances while growing up in the same Seattle suburb.

“Anytime guys are out with injuries, you feel for them and obviously, believe me, selfishly I feel for me and the rest of the guys, too,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “But specifically for the individual because they put so much time and effort into the thing.”

Dotson’s senior season has also been abbreviated. He’s missed the entirety of four Pac-12 games and only played in parts of two others while dealing with concussions, his parents said.

“You never quite know what you’re dealing with when that happens,” Chrisi said.

“That’s kind of like the ghost,” Michael added. “It’s one of those deals where if you’re injured – you break an arm or leg or something that you can see, you know it’s going to heal, you can move on. When you start dealing with issues that impact the brain, there’s so much unknown about that. The data is just in its infancy stage and so as a parent, I’m concerned about that next hit or that next blow.”

Dotson, like Pelluer and like DeRider, helped bring the young linebackers up to speed while he was inactive.

“It’s been really impressive to see the strides they’ve made,” Isaac noted.

Then he got the green light.

Dotson returned to the field for the Cougars’ last game at Utah, starting at MLB and lending a hand on special teams. When healthy, he’s been one of the team’s most productive defensive players, totaling 34 tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss in just four full games.

Washington State linebacker Isaac Dotson, right, brings down Boise State wide receiver A.J. Richardson during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington State linebacker Isaac Dotson, right, brings down Boise State wide receiver A.J. Richardson during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (Young Kwak / AP)

“I think for him to just be dying to get back out there with the guys … that’s everything that’s right about the sport,” Grinch said. “Everything right about a team sport and just speaks to a guy that you talk about being all in to the Washington State football program. You can’t have enough of those guys. I’m thrilled for him and thrilled for us.”

Extending the inside linebacker rotation by one player can make a big difference on game day, too, says position coach Ken Wilson.

“The less they play when they’re fatigued, the better they are,” he said.

Dotson’s parents expect their son to have between 70-80 family members and friends at Husky Stadium on Saturday. That’s not including Pelluer and DeRider, the two teammates who’d make big sacrifices to be in Dotson’s position: healthy and on the field for one final rivalry game.

“It’s weird not having them out there with me,” he said, “but at the same time it’s just extra motivation to get the job done and play my heart out.