Linebacker Zach Johnson Will Be Back for 2012 Season

Eagle co-captain in 2011 has been granted a sixth year by the NCAA after having 19 games wiped out because of injuries

The NCAA provided Eastern Washington University and Zach Johnson some good news on Monday (Feb. 6).

Eastern head football coach Beau Baldwin said that Johnson’s appeal to grant him a sixth year to complete his four years of eligibility has been approved as the result of decisions made since last season by the Big Sky Conference and the NCAA.

In his first five years in the program, the linebacker from Tumwater, Wash. (Tumwater HS ’08), had 19 games wiped out because of the same knee injury -- 12 in 2009 and the last seven as a senior co-captain in the 2011 season. He earned second team All-Big Sky Conference honors in 2010 when he started all 15 games, helping EWU to a 13-2 record and the NCAA Division I National Championship.

“It’s exciting and we’re happy for Zach,” said Baldwin. “He’s worked hard since the day he got here and has been a hard worker all his life. He deserved to get a sixth year based on the injuries he suffered and what he’s gone through. We couldn’t be happier to have Zach back with us.

Wide receiver Tyler Hart is also filing a similar appeal, but still has paperwork to complete before he hears back from the NCAA. His appeal has already been approved by the Big Sky Conference, and Baldwin hopes to get a positive decision back just like EWU received on Johnson’s.

“They did a great job of getting an answer back to us quickly, so now Zach is preparing for spring ball and the season coming up,” Baldwin said. “We felt pretty good about it, but until you hear a yes, you really are not sure. It was obviously great news.”

The senior co-captain played the first four games last season with a chronic tear in his left patellar tendon and had surgery shortly after the announcement on Sept. 27, 2011, that his season had ended. It’s the same injury that required surgery to repair on June 30, 2009. However, Johnson missed the entire 2009 season after a blood clot developed in his leg following the surgery.

“He feels really good right now,” Baldwin said. “He’s been in the weight room doing everything he can in there. You can’t predict how injuries are going to go for anybody, but he’s showing great progress with his rehab, how he’s moving and how he’s lifting. He feels very good about his body, maybe even better than previous seasons at this time.”

Although Johnson played sparingly in his final game on Sept. 24 against Montana State and had only one tackle, through four games he was tied for the team lead in tackles with 30. He has started all 30 games he has played as an Eagle, with 260 career tackles to rank 10th in school history. A second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection in 2010 and a preseason All-American this season, Johnson’s average of 8.7 tackles per game is fourth-best in school history.

Johnson’s twin brother, Matt Johnson, who also started every game he played as an Eagle, had his senior season cut short because of a painful biceps tendon injury he played with since the second game of the season. Baldwin announced on Oct. 19, 2011, that Johnson’s illustrious 45-game career came to a premature ending and Matt underwent surgery the following week.

A bonafide professional prospect, Matt is currently in Orlando, Fla., training for a potential opportunity. He’s been working out in preparation for EWU’s Pro Day, which is tentatively scheduled for March 7, 2012.

“I’ve heard he’s doing great down there,” said Baldwin. “He’s testing really well as he prepares for his Pro Day tests with combine types of work. He’s doing what it takes to put himself in a great position, and from everything I’ve heard, he’s feeling great physically. I have no doubt that he’s going to test really well at our Pro Day.”

At the time his season ended, Matt was the team’s second-leading tackler with 52, including a team-high eight tackles for loss. He had 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry in 2011.

He finished his career just one interception away from the school record of 18 set by Mike Richter from 1971-75. Johnson is tied with former NFL 10-year veteran Kurt Schulz (EWU letter winner 1988-91) and long-time Canadian Football League standout Jackie Kellogg (1990-93), who both have 17 each. Johnson was also only nine interception return yards from the record of 219 held by Schulz, and his six career forced fumbles tied for the school record along with  Renard Williams (2008-11), J.C. Sherritt (2007-10) and Chris Scott (1994-97).

Matt had 341 tackles in his career to move into fifth all-time at Eastern – just five from moving into fourth (Derek Strey had 346 from 1994-97) and only six from third (Jason Marsh had 347 from 1991-93). Johnson had five interceptions in 2010 to help Eastern lead the FCS with 26.

Interestingly, the first start for both Matt and Zach came on Aug. 30, 2008, when Eastern played at Texas Tech University and head coach Mike Leach. The Red Raiders came away with a 49-24 victory, piling up 536 of its 639 yards of offense through the air. Leach is the new head coach at Washington State University – EWU’s opponent on Sept. 8 in Pullman, Wash.

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