Despite his tight end number, Evan Weaver is one of the nation's best linebackers
For Cal's Evan Weaver, cutting body fat in the 2019 offseason serves the practical purpose of making someone who was already one of college football's most prolific linebackers even more dangerous. Head coach Justin Wilcox cited its benefits to Weaver's "flexibility and change of direction."
A leaner, more chiseled frame also serves a cosmetic purpose for the Golden Bears star — just not what one might assume.
"Being able to drop body fat and actually start looking like a linebacker. I do wear No. 89," said the preseason All-American Weaver at Pac-12 media day. "That doesn't really help out much; I might be a tight end soon, is what people thought I was going to be."
When one thinks of all-time great college linebackers, images of jerseys with 50s — like Ray Lewis' No. 52 at Miami, or Junior Seau elevating the traditional No. 55 at USC — probably come to mind. Exceptions exist, like the last linebacker to finish as a Heisman Trophy finalist, Manti Te'o, sporting the No. 5.
Weaver's No. 89 is a peculiarity even among the exceptions. His digits might be more associated with catching passes on short-yardage situations or providing run-blocking, but No. 89 has fast become a signature of the outstanding Cal defense.
Weaver made 158 tackles in 2018, second in the nation behind graduated Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven. The Cal senior racked up nine tackles for a loss, although said he aims for more in 2019. And with every bone-jarring hit, that unusual number represents Weaver's hometown of Spokane, Washington.
A product of Gonzaga Prep, Weaver played defensive end in his high school days. Eighty-nine looks less out of place on a lineman than on a linebacker — fellow Pac-12 media day attendee Christian Rector wears it at end for USC — but Weaver's wearing of that particular jersey wasn't at all about position at Gonzaga Prep.
"It’s just kind of what they do for kids they think are going on to play Div. I football," said Weaver. "It’s been a special number for 30, 40 years, their tradition to give it to an underclassman."
As Weaver describes it, one can draw a parallel between Gonzaga Prep's No. 89 and USC saving the No. 55 for linebackers tabbed for stardom.
"[No. 89] is special number and reserved for the player who isn't just the best," explained Gonzaga Prep head coach Dave McKenna. "It is reserved for the player that represents what it is to be a Bullpup; a player who desires to be the best on and off the field, striving for excellence in everything that he does."
Yet, as McKenna further detailed, No. 89 spent a long while out of rotation. First, there was no actual No. 89 jersey in the team's storage locker. It was re-ordered in the 2000s but hung in the closet for a few more years.
That changed with Travis Long, a Gonzaga Prep sophomore in 2006. Described by McKenna as "an exceptional player" and "great leader on and off the field," Long moved onto Washington State after high school.
He was a four-year standout for the Cougars, concluding his college career in 2012 with 201 tackles, 42 tackles for a loss, 21 sacks and an interception. He earned All-Pac-12 honors as a senior and wore No. 89 throughout his tenure on the Palouse.
"Evan showed the same characteristics that Travis possessed," said McKenna. "He earned No. 89 and the rest is history."
That's history Weaver continues to write today. His emergence as one of the premier playmakers in college football reflects what both Gonzaga Prep and the city of Spokane meant in building the linebacker.
"Spokane’s been a great city for me my whole life [and] really helped me build the character of who I am now," he said.
In turn, Weaver left behind a legacy that manfiests tangibly with Gonzaga Prep's No. 89 jersey — and the "gray hairs" McKenna said Weaver helped grow.
"But at the same time," McKenna continued, "[Weaver] helped transform our team practices, made [them] extremely competitive. His desire to be the best was an everyday thing. He expected that of himself and of his teammates."
It's not just the jersey number that's unchanged. Weaver strives for the same today, citing the outstanding 2018 Cal defense's ability to trim down from the team's 3.61 yard-per-rush yield; national leader Michigan State held opponents to 2.58 yards per carry, for example.
He also referenced tackles for a loss. With 77, Cal ranked just 65th overall in the nation.
For a squad that rode defensive prowess to a bowl and seven wins — including a 12-10 defeat of Pac-12 champion Washington — improvements on that side of the ball could make the Golden Bears surprise conference title contenders in 2019.
The prospect of reaching Cal's first Rose Bowl Game since the 1959 edition isn't lost on Weaver, but he's quick to note that most can't do so without winning "11 or 12 games. That's tough to do in the Pac-12."
Still, Cal will have that opportunity in 2019, thanks to its stellar defense and a kid from Spokane in the No. 89.
"As long as he tackles people, I don't care what number he wears," said Wilcox.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Photo courtesy of calbears.com)