By his own admission, Washington coach Tyrone Willingham has seen "some pretty good competition" at linebacker in preseason practices. And though the saga of Daniel Howell appearing to prevail over Scott White at the strongside position has received much attention from the media, the battle between Chris Stevens and E.J. Savannah for the weakside starting job is proving the one to watch.
Stevens, the media favorite for the spot vacated by Evan Benjamin, is a speedy 6-foot, 215-pound (up from 195 pounds last year) sophomore who saw increased action toward the close of the 2005 season. Redshirt freshman Savannah, 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds (and rising), "could see [his] first playing time at linebacker this fall," according to the Washington media guide.
And though neither will admit to following reports of their contest for the starting job, both confess that this is the first time that either has been involved in a battle that has generated as much publicity as this one has.
"Honestly, I don't think twice about outside factors like that," says Savannah, "If you let it affect you, it will affect your game. I try not to think about it and go out and compete every day."
Stevens concurs. "That's competition," he says: "That's what the game is about."
Indeed, both players seem intently devoted to personal and team goals, particularly learning the defense and their assignments. Stevens in particular has kept a quiet, focused demeanor.
"I want to win some games," says Savannah. "That's the only thing I care about. I can't stand losing, and if I have to do it from the bench if it's best for the team [in order to win], I will—but hopefully not."
Stevens is perhaps a touch more direct: "I want to be the starter," he says.
Savannah is recovering from a nerve injury in his neck, and many in his position might be content just to have come this far. He exercises it daily ("It feels good," he says) and wears a large neck-roll—the 'cowboy collar'—in practice, though coaches have told him that he will be able to remove the restrictive device for games.
"That would be like taking a leash off a dog," he imparts excitedly, revealing his desire to exceed expectations; "I want to be that player and make some plays."
Regarding the defensive unit, both players see improvement. "We're coming together a lot better," says Stevens. "We're working really hard out there."
Savannah adds: "We fly around to ball a lot better this year. Everyone is on the same page as to what coach Willingham expects from us.
"We might not always be the most athletic team, but we will be most conditioned on every play."