Savannah eager for fresh start

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

SEATTLE -- E.J. Savannah won't solve all of Washington's defensive problems. After all, he was the Huskies leading tackler in 2007, when the defense posted the second-worst numbers in school history.

Of course, the worst defense in Huskies history was last season's unit, which surrendered 38.6 points and 452 yards per game.

Savannah wasn't a part of that group for a variety of reasons.

The easiest explanation for his absence in 2008 is this: He was in then-coach Tyrone Willingham's doghouse.

"Once you get into the doghouse, it's hard to get out," Savannah said.

It was a complicated situation. Savannah admits he missed summer workouts. He was struggling with his grades, though he insists that he wasn't ineligible. He broke his arm during the offseason in a bizarre arm wrestling incident.

But he wanted back on the team and thought he was meeting Willingham's guidelines for what he had to do to earn his way back.

"I can't really tell you the reasons for me being away for that long," Savannah said. "[Willingham] never gave us a concise answer. It was just time to step away. I was in limbo for so long."

Limbo is one way to put it. Watching the Huskies get whipped on TV every week was like something else.

"It felt like I was in prison," he said. "The television was my prison cell."

The Huskies gave up 241 yards rushing per game. Opponents completed 67 percent of their passes.

It was ugly.

Savannah believes his absence hurt.

"I was the leader on defense," he said. "Talking to a lot of the guys, they missed my leadership out there. That was the thing that hurt me most. It was like sending troops into battle without their leader."

As for why things were so awful, Savannah doesn't believe it was just a lack of competitive talent.

"It was too many things to count," he said. "I honestly think it was the players not trusting the coaches and not buying into the program. That's how you get an 0-12 season."

Savannah was probably the most celebrated member of Willingham's first recruiting class -- a collection that was widely panned as the Pac-10's worst in 2005. He led prep powerhouse Bellevue (Wash.) High School to four straight titles and saw significant action as a redshirt freshman.

While Savannah, now a senior, thought about transferring, Willingham's midseason termination gave him hope that the next coach would give him another chance, which is exactly what Steve Sarkisian did.

"We wiped the slate clean," Sarkisian said.

While Savannah was rusty during spring practices, it didn't take long for him to rejoin the No. 1 defense as an outside linebacker. The Huskies linebackers, which include middle 'backer Donald Butler and Mason Foster opposite Savannah, are probably the strength of a defense that welcomes back 10 starters and can only get better.

Savannah fractured a bone in his hand -- he said he'd been playing with the injury for a week -- and will wear a cast for four weeks, though the injury isn't expected to keep him from practicing.

"He' still a little rusty in his assignments from having a year off," coordinator Nick Holt said. "We have to kind of harness him. He wants to do too much sometimes. He wants to make every tackle as opposed to just doing his job. It's kind of scraping the rust off."

Said Savannah, "[Coach Holt] says, 'Don't try to be superman,' but that's how my mentality is," Savannah said. "It's hard because I'm an instinctive player. If I see a run across the field, I want to go get it. But I've just got to play the defense."

While on suspension, Savannah had to get a regular job and live like a regular Joe.

"I did not like it at all," he said.

His slate now clean, he has a chance to be part of the Huskies redemption, as well as his own.