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From the Golden State with a golden opportunity- Justin Eklund makes his way to BGSU

BGSU Athletics

On Jan. 10, 2024, legendary Alabama head football coach Nick Saban announced his retirement from the sport.

The move set in motion a coaching carousel that left the entire college football world reeling with whiplash.  

Former Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer took Saban’s place at the helm of the Crimson Tide. He was replaced at UW by Jedd Fisch, leaving a vacancy at the University of Arizona. 

Arizona brass felt San Jose State Head Coach Brent Brennan was the perfect fit to continue what Fisch and his staff started. 

A familiar face, Brennan had spent the 2000 season as a graduate assistant with the Wildcats and more recently engineered a fantastic turnaround of the Spartan football program, taking them from a 3-22 record over his first two seasons to a 32-24 record over the following five seasons, a run which included two Mountain West titles.  

So, what does all this have to do with Bowling Green? 

When a coach leaves a program, the NCAA grants each player a 30-day window to enter the transfer portal, and either follow their coach, or to find a new opportunity.   

Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Justin Eklund was one of the former Spartans who took the opportunity to transfer out for greener pastures – or even corn fields.  

“I think when Coach Brennan left, it was almost like my sign, like, ‘Hey, this is your sign, this is your opportunity to go into the portal,” said Eklund. “The process to even get to that point, it for sure developed over some time.”  

When Eklund entered the transfer portal on Jan. 17, Bowling Green was the first school to offer him. It took just three days for him to make a decision, announcing his commitment to BGSU on Jan. 20.  

A northern Cali kid through and through, Eklund was born in Rocklin, just 20 miles outside of Sacramento. He attended Folsom High School and played under Brennan at San Jose State for his first two years of college, appearing in seven contests.  

But how does a California kid end up in Northwest Ohio?  

“That’s a great question,” said Eklund with a laugh. “I ask myself that a lot. My other roommates are from California too. I just remember the other week; we’re sitting here asking ourselves the same question – ‘How the heck did we end up in Ohio?’ But, you know, it’s crazy what football does – the people you meet, opportunities you get, at the end of the day, getting a free education, playing football. It can’t really get too much better than that.”  

Meeting the right person proved to be crucial in bringing Eklund from the 408 to the 419. 

Sammy Lawanson coaches the outside linebackers at Bowling Green, a position he’s held since prior to the 2022 season.  

Before that, he held the same title at Northern Arizona University, one of 12 schools to offer Eklund coming out of high school. 

Lawanson was his primary recruiter. 

“Coach Lawanson, I’ve known him for a while,” said Eklund. “He offered me when he was at NAU, so I had a connection there, but when I hopped in that portal, he was the first guy that reached out to me, and was like ‘Okay, I have a relationship with you, I trust you, I can see myself doing this.”  

Their relationship goes deeper than just a recruitment, however.  

Like Eklund, Lawanson is a native of California. He spent 2014-2019 coaching in the same state he was born, spending five seasons at Sacramento State before taking over as a defensive quality control guy at Fresno State in 2019.  

During this time is when the Lawanson and Eklund families first crossed paths.  

“Justin grew up playing football, Pop Warner football, with my oldest son, so I’ve basically watched Justin grow up, bloom, as he’s gone through the college experience,” said Lawanson. “So, we’ve always had a really close relationship, I kind of know who and what he is, what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are, so when he hit the portal, I knew that there’d be a fit here.” 

Those strengths, as Lawanson described, are ones that any coach looks for in a player.  

He referred to him a professional, a glue guy, and someone who just does everything the right way.  

The ultimate team player.   

Eklund joins a Bowling Green front seven that ranked near the top of college football in sack percentage, sacks per game, and sacks in general in 2023. Though there will be some production to make up for, with three of the Falcons’ top four producers in sacks are no longer on the roster.  

Lawanson says the fans won’t see the same flash from Eklund as pass rushers past, but that he can turn into a guy who can still put up five to seven sacks a season, and that his ceiling is a valuable piece to a championship defense.  

There’s still plenty of time before Eklund is called upon officially, with the season opener still over 100 days away, but Lawanson says he’s progressing well, and has already been hitting the weight room hard, adding 10 pounds since enrolling in January of this year.  

A low-risk move that can pay out dividends, if Eklund and the BG coaching staff can tap into his potential over the next 100 days.

Who knows, maybe BGSU fans will be extending a big, warm ‘Thank you’ to Nick Saban.  

For more stories related to BGSU Athletics, follow Falcon Media Sports Network on X (@bg_fmsn).

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