Savannah glad to be back on the field for Huskies

SEATTLE — E.J. Savannah stood on the sideline after Thursday’s practice, signing autographs for a few young Husky fans and shaking hands with some older ones.

One man welcomed Savannah back and told the linebacker that Washington football fans had missed him. For Savannah, the feeling was mutual.

“I just appreciate being here, being with the guys and being able to play football,” Savannah said. “This is what I love and I’m just glad to be back out here.”

The UW football career of Savannah, who led the Huskies in tackles in 2007, looked to be finished last September when he asked for and was granted his release. Savannah had been in trouble with Tyrone Willingham and his staff before, but when his indefinite suspension in the fall of 2008 extended into early part of the season, Savannah decided it was time to leave.

Willingham cited academics as one of the reasons for the suspension, but Savannah maintains that he was eligible at the time. He admits to having missed some offseason workouts, using a broken arm as an excuse, though he didn’t think that was enough to merit a long suspension.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “I think me and the old coaching staff just didn’t see eye-to-eye. I didn’t agree with a lot of their philosophies and their coaching style. … (The arm) shouldn’t have been an excuse, but that was my excuse at the time. I shouldn’t have used that as an excuse, but I learned from it. I’ll be a better player for it.

Savannah left the team and school, but continued to work out and never transferred to another program.

“For some reason I never really thought I was done at the University of Washington, even when I was kicked off the team and was waiting,” he said. “I can’t lie and say I didn’t look at other schools, but I never really felt like I was going anywhere.”

When Steve Sarkisian was hired, Savannah and the new UW coach met, and Sarkisian, who was offering a clean slate to the current roster, extended that policy to Savannah as well.

“He was just like everybody else to me,” Sarkisian said. “You’re going to show us who you are in all facets. Everything counts whether it’s on the field or off the field in the classroom. Everything counts, and I’ve been proud of E.J, he’s done a nice job.”

It’s still early, however, and Savannah knows he’ll have to prove some doubters wrong. Last fall’s suspension wasn’t his first problem with the old coaching staff. He was also suspended for part of spring practice last year and was held out of the starting lineup at times two seasons ago for disciplinary reasons.

Now in his final season of eligibility, Savannah says he’s ready to move forward and that he’s learned from his past mistakes.

“I learned that football can just be taken away from you,” he said. “I learned that my freshman year, but I was still young and I don’t think I realized it to that extent. But man, I’m doing everything I can just to stay right on the football field and with this team. That’s where my home is. I definitely don’t take days off no more. I wake up looking to work out, looking to watch film, or looking to get better somehow on the football field.”

Donald Butler and Mason Foster, who along with Savannah figure to make up the starting linebacking unit in the fall, both say the team has welcomed Savannah back and that there are no hard feelings about the past.

“He’s back, and it’s a blessing,” Foster said. “I’m glad the coaches gave him another chance, and I think he’s fully ready to take advantage of this opportunity he has.”

Another believer in Savannah is his coach from Bellevue High School, Butch Goncharoff.

“He’s got a second chance, and I don’t think he’s going to waste it,” said Goncharoff, who watched Thursday’s practice from the sideline. “The thing I’ve always said about E.J. is that E.J. loves football. The things that go with it, the work and the commitment, those are the things that he’s had to grow up in his life and change. But you see that now with him. His grades are good, he’s always been a bright kid. He’s working hard off the field, and it shows. He looks good out here.”

And to those that do still doubt him, Savannah says he won’t let you down this fall.

“I’m going to bring it, and I’m going to stay right,” he said. “I’m good with the coaches, I’m going to stay right and they’ll see me out there this season.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com. For more on UW sports, check out the Huskies blog at heraldnet.com/huskiesblog

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