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California’s Evan Weaver – college football’s leading tackler – is boldly wearing No. 89 as an homage to Gonzaga Prep, Spokane

At the outset of every season, as Dave McKenna is gifting jersey numbers to his varsity football players at Gonzaga Prep, the Bullpups coach has to be somewhat meticulous.

First things first: Nobody gets No. 34. That, of course, was the jersey worn by former G-Prep, Washington State and New Orleans Saints linebacker Steve Gleason. The Bullpups retired it in 2013. No one has donned it since.

According to high school rules, skill players can’t wear Nos. 50-79 – something else McKenna has to consider when he’s handing out G-Prep’s navy blue home tops and crisp white roadies to his quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends.

Then there’s the case of No. 89.

“89’s a pretty special number,” McKenna said.

For the same reason quarterbacks almost exclusively wear numbers ranging from 1-19, the Nos. 80-99 on a football are usually reserved for receivers, tight ends and defensive linemen. Or maybe the occasional punter.

In the Pac-12, No. 89 is worn by 11 players. Here’s the breakdown: three tight ends, three wide receivers, two punters, two defensive linemen and one … linebacker?

This July, at Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles, Cal’s Evan Weaver somehow stumbled into an explanation for why he wears No. 89. Over the decades, Weaver said, the number has sporadically been given to promising young players at G-Prep.

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In this Sept. 14, 2019 photo, California’s Evan Weaver (89) tackles North Texas’ Jyaire Shorter (16) while attempting to catch a pass on fourth down in the fourth quarter of on NCAA college football game, in Berkeley, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo / San Jose Mercury News via AP)
In this Sept. 14, 2019 photo, California’s Evan Weaver (89) tackles North Texas’ Jyaire Shorter (16) while attempting to catch a pass on fourth down in the fourth quarter of on NCAA college football game, in Berkeley, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo / San Jose Mercury News via AP)

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The topic surfaced as Weaver was detailing his intense summer training regimen and dietary plan, which helped the linebacker trim 4 1/2 percent of his body fat, improving things like agility, endurance and durability. Weaver was already one of the nation’s most productive players in 2018, with 159 tackles – second only to Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven – but Cal coaches figured he could ratchet up those numbers by turning fat into muscle.

“He’s still a big guy, he’s 250 pounds, but it’ll just help with his flexibility and his change of direction,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said.

On a lighter note, Weaver added, “I think just being able to drop body fat, being able to start looking like a linebacker because I do wear No. 89, so that doesn’t really help out much. I might be a tight end or something pretty soon.”

Actually, Weaver would rather be the one punishing tight ends.

Well, tight ends, receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, offensive guards, unassuming biochem majors … you name it.

Demanding students to attend Cal’s game against Arizona State, Weaver jokingly tweeted, “I WILL TACKLE YOU IF YOU DO NOT COME TO THE GAME FRIDAY. So I’ll see you there!”

In another promotional video for the Bears, Weaver urged, “Come on, get out of the libraries, get out of your classes, ask your teachers for extra credit, your frats, bring everybody here at 7:30. It’s about to be rocking.”

Weaver’s done it all as an enforcer for the Golden Bears this season, leading the country in tackles (127) while becoming the face of Cal’s football program – one that’s been synonymous with prolific quarterbacks, like Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff, or great receivers, like Keenan Allen and Desean Jackson, but usually not linebackers and certainly not ones wearing the No. 89.

“As long as he tackles people, I don’t care what number he wears,” Wilcox said.

Weaver further explained the origins of his No. 89, noting, “My high school coach actually gave it to me as a sophomore.”

It’s been a fixture for the Bullpups since former Washington State star Travis Long wore it at G-Prep. It has roots that go further back than that, although McKenna brought the tradition back during Long’s sophomore season.

“Not only a football player, but Travis was really close to a 4.0 student, I believe,” McKenna said. “Very smart football player, even a better athlete.”

“It’s just kind of what they do for kids that they think are going to go play Division I in football,” Weaver said. “So, it’s kind of a special number that’s been there for 30, 40 years. It’s been their tradition to give it to an underclassman. Just kind of stuck with me when I got to college and I love it.”

An up-and-coming sophomore linebacker, Kaz Melzer, is wearing it for the Bullpups now. Jamaari Jones, who might have gone on to a college basketball career had he not suffered a knee injury, also donned No. 89 for the private Catholic school in Spokane.

When McKenna took his G-Prep team to the Bay Area in September to play St. Ignatius of San Francisco, a handful of people inquired about Weaver. The coach was stunned to see the face of his former linebacker plastered on billboards and buses.

“That was a cool experience,” McKenna said.

In July, as Weaver fielded questions from Pac-12 reporters at the Hollywood and Highland Entertainment Center, the linebacker was asked to project a bit: “You had 18 tackles last year against Colorado, can you top that?”

“I believe I can,” Weaver responded.

He had 18 tackles in a big road win at No. 14 Washington – the last college game Weaver will play in his home state – and then shattered it two games later, with 22 in a road win at Ole Miss. In that game, Weaver stuffed Rebels QB John Rhys Plumlee on the 1-yard line as time expired to secure Cal’s first road victory over an SEC school since 1977.

Even as Cal’s offense has staggered through a four-game losing streak, Weaver’s production hasn’t. The linebacker had 21 tackles two games ago against Oregon State and 22 in the last game against Utah.

McKenna doesn’t remember Weaver’s single-game high at G-Prep, but said, “He could’ve easily had that in high school. He was everywhere. I go back to our state game when we won state, and they were trying to put two to three guys on there because they didn’t know where we were going to line him up. So they tripled him and he still made plays. His motor was unbelievable.”

During practice, McKenna often begged Weaver to ease up. The Bullpups couldn’t simulate realistic game scenarios if their all-state pass-rusher was plowing through G-Prep’s linemen every snap.

“Yeah, all the time,” McKenna said. “ ‘Evan, stop going. Get blocked for a moment. We know what you can do. We’ve got to let the other guys, see what’s going to develop here.’ We’re trying to do a fit drill and make sure the other guys are fit into their gaps and doing their responsibilities, and it was tough to block him.”

Maybe those practices at G-Prep weren’t the best model of what Weaver would face in the Pac-12, but the linebacker still owes much of his success to Spokane, and the lessons he gleaned from McKenna and others.

“Spokane’s been a great city for me my whole life,” Weaver said. “Really helped me to build my character and who I am right now.”

Weaver’s slimmed down, losing much of the baby fat he carried his first three seasons in Berkeley. He took a more measured approach to what he was putting in his body, cut out “cheat days” and allotted more time to meal preparation.

“In 7-on-7, he’s making plays, so he’s looking a lot better,” Cal cornerback Cameron Bynum said. “Looking like a true linebacker, but also able to run. Just like Pac-12 football, it’s a throwing game, so he needs to be able to catch up and he’s able to do that.”

But Weaver’s edge is still there.

At Media Day, a reporter wanted to know, “Is there one aspect (of football) that’s the most fun for you?”

“Oh man, it’s got to be hitting people,” Weaver said. “Hitting people is awesome. Or running through the line and getting a blindside shot or something. Receiver’s crossing the middle, running back’s trying to stand you up one-on-one. That’s the best when you can just enforce your mercy on them.”

Weaver’s big, tall presence in the middle of the field is something opponents must plan around. He’s a tackling junkie, but at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he also has the length to disrupt passing lanes.

He’ll certainly be on Washington State’s radar when the Cougars (4-4, 1-4), visit the Bears (4-4, 1-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley.

“He’s long out there, so maybe you’ve got to be a little smarter with some throws,” Cougars QB Anthony Gordon said Tuesday. “Where maybe some other linebackers in our conference maybe won’t tip it. I’m aware he’s one of the top players in the country at his position, so I’m going to be cautious of where he’s at.”

Spokanites and G-Prep fans ought to keep this number in mind for the remainder of Weaver’s senior season: 191.

In 2011, Boston College’s Luke Kuechly set the FBS record for tackles in a single season when he notched 191. Weaver’s coming up on that mark. He’d need to average 16 tackles per game if the Bears don’t qualify for a bowl game, and 12.8 per game if they do.

Earlier this week, he was one of the first players to accept an invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which gathers the top senior college prospects from across the country for a week of practices and workouts in front of NFL scouts.

A preseason All-American, Weaver’s also a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, a quarterfinalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy and on watch lists for the Butkus Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

Not too shabby for a linebacker wearing No. 89.

But also not too surprising for the coach who gave it to him.

“I knew he had the potential,” McKenna said. “He’s driven that way. … I ran into him at the lake this summer. He’s still Evan and that’s what’s so cool about him.

“And he’s a wonderful young man. I’m proud of him.”

California linebacker Evan Weaver (89) celebrates after a tackle on the final play of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Sept. 21, 2019. Weaver made the goal-line stop en route to his career-high 22 tackles. (Thomas Graning / Associated Press)
California linebacker Evan Weaver (89) celebrates after a tackle on the final play of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Sept. 21, 2019. Weaver made the goal-line stop en route to his career-high 22 tackles. (Thomas Graning / Associated Press)

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