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EWU tight end Jake Withnell enjoys the dirty work

Eastern Washington's Jake Withnell has scored just twice in his four-year career with Eastern, but he is plenty happy making the offense go as a blocker or a decoy. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington's Jake Withnell has scored just twice in his four-year career with Eastern, but he is plenty happy making the offense go as a blocker or a decoy. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Someone has to do the heavy lifting on the football field, and Jake Withnell is happy to oblige.

The Eastern Washington tight end is happiest when he’s sprawled on the field after making a block that only his coaches and teammates can appreciate, or drawing in a safety to give an Eagle receiver room to make a big play.

“He plays the game with a chip on his shoulder, and does it with a smile on his face,” assistant coach Brian Strandley said.

A fifth-year senior, Withnell has been doing that for four years. He hasn’t missed a game yet, and on Saturday at Montana, he’s expected to play in his 53rd game as an Eagle, tying the record of former linebacker Ronnie Hamlin.

The other records – for catches, yards and touchdowns – will go to someone else. But Cooper Kupp and the other other Eagle receivers wouldn’t be lighting up the scoreboard unless the Eagle tight ends were lighting up some defenders.

Or just serving as a decoy. For Withnell, there’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a safety while Kupp gets open on a seam route that goes for 30 yards.

“That’s great with me,” Withnell said.

Thanks partly to plays like that, Eastern led the Football Championship Subdivision last year in scoring offense (44.1 per game) and first downs (361 total) and ranked second in passing efficiency (163.52) and third in total offense (513.4).

That in turn helped the Eagles win three straight Big Sky Conference titles.

“That’s the bottom line,” Withnell said.

At Eastern, the tight ends are blockers first. “We know what our role is: help in the run game and get after the defensive ends,” said Withnell, speaking for teammates Terry Jackson II, Zach Wimberly, Beau Byus and others.

Says Strandley, “So many tight ends measure themselves by how many balls are thrown at them, but Jake enjoys the grind of putting an opponent on his butt and letting them know about it.”

Together, the Eastern tight ends have 17 catches for 133 yards this year; the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Withnell has just two, for 5 yards. His career stats: eight catches for 31 yards and two touchdowns.

“When you look at the stats, the numbers aren’t exactly jumping out at you,” Withnell said.

There is one: Withnell’s 3.90 grade-point average as an accounting major. A three-time Big Sky Conference All-Academic performer, he’s all but guaranteed to earn a fourth at season’s end.

That’s the product of hard work and discipline on and off the field. “I think football has taught me that work ethic, that there’s not a lot of time for you to mess around,” Withnell said.

Five years as an Eagle mean a lot of memories for Withnell, the first coming before he signed. His official visit to Eastern came during the Eagles’ national title run in 2010. After watching the semifinal win over Villanova, the Salem native said “I just knew that this was I wanted to play and that coach (Beau) Baldwin is a special guy.”

After the usual growing pains – Withnell went from all-state high school star to feeling like “the worst player on the team” – he grew into a role that he’s embraced ever since.

Of the tight ends, “We’ve developed a culture,” said Withnell, who also credited Strandley (the EWU tight ends coach from 2012-14) and John Graham (the current coach) for being “two incredible position coaches.”

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