Cougs' Eklund plays with chip on his shoulder

PULLMAN – One of the bigger storylines when spring drills kick off March 27 will be if the Cougar o-line can reload and take that next step. WSU starting left tackle Gunnar Eklund recently sat down with to discuss the importance of playing with a chip on his shoulder, especially against UW and the rest of the Pac-12, and his plans for leading the WSU offensive line into spring ball.

Departed from the offensive line are starting seniors (RT) John Fullington, (RG) Matt Goetz and (C) Elliott Bosch. Theoretically there are five open spots but Eklund and fellow returning starter Joe Dahl at left guard are expected to occupy two of those positions. Both Eklund and Dahl will be fourth-year juniors in 2014.

Eklund said he was lucky to play with Bosch and Fullington, two guys who were excellent at leading by example. Bosch would speak when necessary, Eklund said, but primarily Bosch just consistently worked hard, which prompted others to follow suit. That's the approach Eklund said he's taking as he prepares for next season.

His goals for next year extend past setting the tone amongst his own unit. Eklund said he also wants to earn All Pac-12 honors; an accomplishment he says rewards both his individual efforts and those of his teammates.

"It starts with showing it first, you can't preach something if you're not doing it," Eklund said about setting an example for his teammates. "You have to show it on the field through workouts and hard work. If you show them how you're supposed to do it, then you can start telling them and helping them out and showing them the path."

Eklund said maintaining confidence is especially essential for the younger players. To that end, he said it's crucial for him to verbally emphasize paying attention to detail and having a short-term memory after making mistakes.

Eklund's path to success has been a rigorous one. He's gone from an unknown walk on listed fourth on the depth chart to the starting left tackle responsible for protecting Connor Halliday's blind side in the Air Raid offense. So how did he get there?

FROM HIS DAYS as a youngster playing fullback for his flag football team, Eklund has loved the game. But after his sophomore year at Lake Stevens High, he had to learn to love it all over again.

To his displeasure, he was moved from his beloved fullback and tight end positions and placed on the offensive line. The concept of playing without stats and not receiving any of the accolades didn't sit well with him. He grew unsure about whether he wanted to continue to play football but it was talks with his mother and father which got his head back in the game.

"They said, ‘Hey you have shot to be really good but is this something you want to do? If you don't work for it you're not going to make it to college,'" Eklund said. "I knew I wanted to play college sports. I just didn't know if I wanted to play o-line."

His high school offensive line coach, Jeff Pahukoa, also played a critical part in Eklund's change of heart. Pahukoa, a UW alum and former NFL lineman, says his background help Eklund have an open mind to the idea of adopting a new role.

"He respected the fact that I knew what was best for him," Pahukoa said. "We had a long talk and I told him I'd teach him everything he needed to know to get as far as he wanted to go. He realized that he could trust me and I was going to make it the best opportunity for him."

Once Eklund finally got the hang of his role up front, he fell head over heels all over again with football.

"I had to learn it's not about the glory," he said. "Once I started getting the hang of o-line and got better at it, it came back. I loved it."

BUT AFTER A successful senior season at Lake Stevens capped with All-Area First-Team honors, Eklund still didn't have any big time scholarship offers. He was in talks with Wyoming and Washington but when they failed to deliver on the scholarship offer they led Eklund to believe was coming, he set his sights on Washington State.

"It just left a little fire burning when they say they want you and they find someone they think is better and they don't want you anymore," he said. "I got a thing against them because of how they treated me."

He knew he was good enough coming out of high school to play Pac-10/12 level football and it was just a matter of getting the opportunity. That's exactly what he got after a phone call from then WSU O-line coach Steve Morton.

"I always liked WSU. I like the east side, I love it over here," Eklund said. "Even with (Paul) Wulff, what they wanted to do was take a program that was struggling and start bringing it up. I know (Mike) Leach has really turned the wheels on that but I wanted to be a part of that just because it was kind of like me."

Growing up on the west side of the state, feeling mistreated in the recruiting process by UW cut an even deeper wound.

"They were right in my backyard and they didn't want me," he said. "I want to try to prove to them that was a mistake."

That feeling doesn't stop with the Dawgs. Each time he hits the field against a conference opponent, he's out to make a statement.

"Every time we step out there against UW, against Oregon, against Oregon State, against Utah – all those guys that got scholarships and all their o-linemen, in their minds they were better than me," he said. "I want to make that said that they're not better than me, through my play."

BUT FIRST, HE had to prove himself among his Cougar teammates. With Leach now on board, Eklund entered 2012 spring football down on the depth chart but by the end of those 15 practices, o-line coach Clay McGuire had him working with the 1's and 2's.

By the third game of his redshirt freshman campaign, he started at left tackle and stayed there. A broken wrist forced him to miss the final three games of the season, including the win over the Huskies.

The following spring, he entered WSU chief of staff Dave Emerick's office a walk on and left with the scholarship he so deeply desired.

"I was super jacked. It was huge, just the moment, feeling that you worked hard for something, you made it," he said. "Anything you work hard for and you get it, it feels good."

NOW ENTERING HIS junior season with the Cougars, Eklund said he'll take with him a valuable message he received from renowned speaker Eric Thomas, who addressed the team prior to the start of the 2013 season. Thomas encouraged the players to find their "why."

And Eklund says he known exactly why he's out on the field come Saturdays.

"My ‘why' is the chip on my shoulder, my ‘why' is my family, my ‘why' is my friends," he said.

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