The Eagle linebacker was granted a rare sixth year this past spring, helping him continue toward the career tackles mark of his twin brother Matt
By Fedor Gaponenko, EWU Sports Information
There is now only one Johnson twin on the Eastern Washington University football team, but the Eagles are more than grateful for that.
Despite having to recover from a blood clot in his leg that caused him to miss the entire 2009 season, and then missing most of last season due to a recurring knee injury, Zach Johnson has still been able to have a stellar career at Eastern. His career was thankfully extended when he received a rare sixth year by the NCAA and Big Sky Conference to complete his four years of collegiate eligibility.
In 2010, both he and his twin Matt Johnson were able to stay healthy and help lead the Eagles to a 13-2 record and the NCAA Division I Championship. In the spring, they finally parted ways in their football careers after playing together their entire life. Matt was drafted in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys, while Zach was granted his sixth year.
Despite having 19 games wiped out because of injuries, Zach has started all 32 games he has played as an Eagle, which is the most among all Eastern defenders. He has 274 tackles in his career, just 14 from moving into eighth all-time at Eastern. He is only 67 from ranking fifth and equaling the total of 341 by his twin.
Zach’s average of 8.6 tackles per game is fourth-best in school history, and if he continues that pace, he will finish with 351 tackles in his career and move into third in school history behind Greg Belzer (399 from 1997-2000) and J.C. Sherritt (432 from 2007-10). Matt, who had his 2011 season come to a premature end with a shoulder injury, also started every game he played as an Eagle (45).
The first start of their careers came as freshmen in 2008 when they both started against the “Air Raid” offense of Mike Leach and Texas Tech. Zach’s latest start was also against Leach in a 24-20 loss at Washington State on Sept. 8 in EWU’s last game. The Eagles play at Weber State this Saturday (Sept. 22) before playing their home opener versus rival Montana at 4:15 p.m. Pacific time on Sept. 29 at Roos Field in Cheney Wash.
You’re inching closer to your brother for career tackles here at Eastern. Do you have him sweating it out right now?
“I don’t know if he’s too worried about it. We haven’t really talked about it, so I don’t think he’s too worried.”
No doubt you were disappointed to miss most of last season, but how glad were you when you were granted approval for a rare sixth year?
“I was extremely glad. For a while I was worried about it, but Coach Baldwin was pretty confident that I was going to get to stay. I was trying to stay confident, but deep down I was worried. When I found out I got it, I was just ready to get back to work.”
With all the injuries you and your brother Matt have been through, how hard is it to have to keep recovering from them and going through rehab?
“It’s definitely a difficult process and I don’t wish it upon anyone. We know it happens for a reason -- everything does and you just have to stay positive. That’s the hardest part. The physical aspect is not as hard as staying positive and mentally strong. We’re always there for each other and since we’ve been through it, we can talk to each other about it.”
What is your health like right now and what precautions are you, the coaches and athletic trainers taking to get you through a full year, like the magical season in 2010?
“I’m good -- a lot better than I have been the last couple of years. They help me by keeping me out of practice sometimes and just being smart to make sure I’m ready for Saturdays. In the past I would go practice when I wasn’t feeling great, but this time we’re just trying to be smart to not push it.”
With a week off before the Weber State game, do you wish you could have a week off between games all the time?
“No, actually that’s one of the worst parts about football. Even when you win, there are always plays that you want to take back, and you have to wait a whole week to do that. In other sports you usually play every other day. But to have to wait two weeks for the next game – especially after one that I felt we should have won -- is even harder. So no, I would rather play right now.”
It has been a huge year in your brother’s football career after being drafted and making the Cowboys roster. He said you were the first person he called when he made the 53-man roster – what was that like?
“We had been talking through that week because we knew that the cuts were coming up. He’s a little banged up so we didn’t know if he would make it on the active roster. We were just talking and saying that whatever happens he’ll be fine. He wasn’t too worried about being waived. Then he called me and told me he made it onto the active roster, and I just congratulated him and let him know how proud I was. It was a good phone call for sure.”
The defense held Idaho to three points then shut-out Washington State in the second half. Do you think this is shaping up to be a defense like you had during the national championship season?
“Yes, definitely. I think we have a special group of guys playing and we are a lot deeper than we have been in the last couple of years. Every game we just have to tweak a couple of things and improve, but I definitely feel like we have a special group of guys the way we fly around out there.”
How much of a challenge was it to face the Air Raid offense for the second time in your career?
“It’s definitely a challenge the way they spread you out and try to pick on the linebackers. Honestly, it’s a fun game because there’s a lot of action. It wasn’t too challenging because our coaches prepared us well and we knew what they were going to do. Once we were able to figure them out we shut them down.”
Is getting back to the playoffs and making a run at another championship a realistic goal for this team?
“No doubt -- that’s always our goal. Like I said, I feel like we have a special group. I was a part of the 2010 championship team and I feel like we have a lot of similarities. We haven’t started conference yet and we need to go one game at a time, but we have a lot of mature players. Toward the playoffs in the 2010 season we were really mature. We are already getting to that point -- we just need to fix some things and we’ll be all right.”
I know you are only supposed to take them one game at a time, but how exciting is it to open your home schedule versus Montana?
“We’re always excited to play those guys. The fact that we’re opening our home schedule against them is pretty sweet. It’s definitely one we have circled on our schedule.”
How important to you is getting the opportunity to play professional football? Matt must be putting in a few good words with the Cowboys.
“We always joke about that because his defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, is a twin with (New York Jets head coach) Rex Ryan. So Rob says that he likes twins, and Matt is like, ‘you know I have one.’ It’s always been a dream since I was little, just like it was for Matt. So if I’m healthy enough, obviously, that’s my goal. If it doesn’t happen I’ll be all right, but yes, it has always been my goal.”
What did you do exciting this summer outside of football?
“Not much – I hung out with my family a lot. I got engaged in the winter and there’s a farm that we’ve been clearing out, so I spent a lot of time there. It was actually a very good time.”
When you aren’t working out or practicing what are some of your biggest interests outside of football?
“I like being outdoors and hunting -- some fishing but mostly hunting. Besides that, I just like being with family and friends.”
If you could say one thing to all the Eagle fans what would it be?
“Thank you for all the support. When I first got here as a redshirt freshman it was not nearly what it is now. I appreciate all the support we’re receiving in Cheney and Spokane. We thank you -- it really means a lot to us.”