Quarterback Justin Lane connects on and off field
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Very few athletes at Central Washington University have made connections to former Division I players and coaches. Even fewer have had the course of their lives changed by these connections.
Justin Lane, quarterback for CWU’s football team, has had his entire adult life experience shaped by people who have tried to help him find where he belongs, going back to high school.
“My mentor in high school was Jason Gesser, I worked with him a lot and he had a lot of recruiting hookups,” Lane said. “So I would work out with him on the weekends and he had some coaches he knew who would come and watch me throw. Whether it be Coach Wulff [at Washington State] or coaches he knew at [University of Washington].”
Jason Gesser played at Washington State under Mark Price,where he started for three years and led the WSU Cougars to the 2003 Rose Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. He won Pac-10 Co-Offensive Player of the Year for the 2002 season along with University of Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer also won the Heisman Trophy, given to college football’s most outstanding player, in 2002.
Lane met Gesser while attending Lakewood High School in Arlington, Washington, where he graduated in 2011. While at Lakewood, he led the team to the 2010 Washington High School Football Division 2A Playoffs, which was their first playoff appearance in 16 years.
“We weren’t too great until my senior year,” Lane said. “The years after that they’ve been pretty good.”
The team had a 3-7 record each of Lane’s first three years of high school before going 7-3 in the 2010 season. In the four years after Lane’s graduation, Lakewood went 34-9, averaging over 8 wins per season.
However, without the help of Gesser, Lane isn’t sure if he would have been as desired by college athletic programs .
“During one weekend [workout], there just so happened to be a guy named Luke Huard, a Washington guy,” Lane said.
Luke Huard, the younger brother of former University of Washington quarterbacks Damon and Brock, was the offensive coordinator at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois where he watched Lane play on a weekend in 2010.
“He sold me on the program, offered me [a scholarship] on the spot,” Lane said. “I went on a visit a month later and really liked it, they treated me well.”
Lane was recruited to play at Eastern Washington University, University of Idaho, Washington State University, University of Washington, University of Texas-El Paso and University of Montana. Huard and Illinois State were able to convince Lane that he had a future with their program.
“[Huard] was a Washington guy,” Lane said. “So when I went out there, I had a connection. I took more visits, but I committed to Illinois State pretty quickly. After I committed, I told myself, ‘it’s one of those schools [that] I’ve always been in love with,’ and I wouldn’t decommit. I wouldn’t do that to a program.”
As a freshman, Lane redshirted, meaning he was not on the active roster for the 2011 season. Lane still got to experience a lot while a member of the Redbirds, including getting to Normal, Illinois as soon as high school was over.
“I graduated [high school] and flew out the next day,” Lane said. “In Division I there’s required training time in the summer time. They don’t care, you have to be there. I was there all the way through to the summer, and transferred in July.”
Lane was considered the best of the three freshman recruited and (even as a redshirt) got to travel with the team to their away games.
“You could say I got to do everything with the team without having to worry about going in,” Lane said. “Head Coach [Brock] Spack was a really good defensive coach. He was really big on bringing in transfers, big Division I kickbacks. I played around some really good talent. I never got to play on the scout team to play the defense.”
Nate Palmer, one of the linebackers on the Redbird defense that won seven games in 2011, had 60 tackles for the Green Bay Packers in 2015, and is currently playing for the Tennessee Titans. Palmer transferred from University of Illinois to Illinois State. Defensive lineman Shelby Harris came to Illinois State after spending a redshirt year at University of Wisconsin. Harris was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent two years with the team before joining the New York Jets in 2016.
“It would have been fun [to play scout team] because our defense was really good,” Lane said. “We had a lot of talent, with a couple guys who play in [the NFL]. Those experiences were really cool.”
During his time in Illinois, Lane started to feel doubts about what he wanted to do in life, and if going so far from home was really the right move for his athletic and academic careers.
“[At] the end of the summer I kind of just wanted to take a break from football,” Lane said. “I wanted to figure out if I wanted to keep playing or get back home. [I didn’t know] if I screwed up. But I had to play [the year] out.”
In July of 2012, Lane came back home to Washington and spent some time with his friends and family, unsure of what to do. While back in his home state, CWU, WSU and Idaho all showed interest in helping him continue his football career. From there, personal connections again led him to the next step.
“I was rolling through Ellensburg, just passing through,” Lane said. “And Coach [Blaine] Bennett gave me a call to come in and have a talk with him and sold me on the program. I knew some guys on the team and some friends going to the school so it was an easy transition. And it’s only two and a half hours from home. Coming home was a lot nicer than being 2,000 miles away in Illinois.”
Lane didn’t enroll at CWU until winter quarter of 2013, which is why this year he is classified as a redshirt senior. If Lane had taken classes fall quarter of 2012, the NCAA would have ruled him ineligible for the 2016 season, as his 4 years would have been used between 2012 and 2015.
“I took that fall quarter [of 2012] off, and came here in the winter,” Lane said. “Figured out what I wanted to do, like if I wanted to play football. I was supposed to be a senior last year, but I got to come back this year because I took that fall off. But I took that time [in 2012] to decide if I was just going to go to school, or if I was going to go to school to play [football].”
Thankfully, Lane did decide to return to the football field. After the dismissal of CWU’s head coach Blaine Bennett four days before the 2013 season, John Picha took charge as the interim head coach. The quarterback position was the most pressing need for the team, as Ryan Robertson graduated after playing four seasons under center for the Wildcats.
“They had a bunch of quarterbacks,” Lane said. “When I got here there was eight of us, five of them were freshman. Guys like Jake Nelson, Tyler Stumph, and a few others. All [Coach Bennett] said was that it was going to be an open competition. Coach told me that because I was the transfer coming in, they had high hopes for me but nothing is given.”
Stumph, now a tight end for the Wildcats, and a few other quarterbacks either redshirted or changed positions for the 2013 season. An open competition between Lane and Nelson was held during summer camp, and Lane won to the starting quarterback position and started the season. In the first two games, however, Lane did not show much promise.
“I played two games, and didn’t play well,” Lane said. “They threw Jake in there. Jake played pretty well that first year, well enough to keep it that year.”
After going 7-4 in 2013, Ian Shoemaker was brought in to be the head coach for the 2014 season. Shoemaker held a competition in summer camp for the second year in a row for the quarterback position.
“We had a competition again and [Coach Shoemaker] thought we should stick with Jake,” Lane said. “But he told me to always be ready, always.”
After spending most of 2014 behind Nelson, Lane was called upon in the second game of 2015 after Nelson was injured. Lane started the next week, and kept the starting job after Nelson decided to leave the CWU football team.
“Last year, he didn’t start well,” Lane said. “Then he got a concussion [against Dixie State], which led to me getting in the game, which is all I needed.”
Since Lane became the starter, the team is 9-5 since week three of 2014, including 4-2 this year. Last week, he gave his best performance to date. Facing Humboldt State, the defending GNAC champions, Lane went 26 of 38 for 330 yards and three passing touchdowns. While dealing with the pressure of being on the road, he did not throw an interception for the fourth time this season. Lane threw for zero interceptions in four games all of last season.
Teammates and coaches alike have been impressed by what Lane and the team have put together this year, including Lane himself.
“I think our team this year versus our team last year,” Lane said. “Still a complete night and day team with the teams we have played. It’s a different team. Offense we returned half of our starters, and on defense we have a new scheme, I think we’re completely different team.”
Josh Stolz, center for the WIldcats, met Lane before he knew they were going to be teammates.
“Honestly he’s a good dude to be around,” Stolz said. “Because we came in at the same time, him as a transfer and me as a walk-on. Before we knew we played on the same team, we had a class together, so it was kind of funny. We have a really good relationship just being together for four years.”
Stolz thinks that Lane has been a revelation for the team, and that Lane can lead the team to a GNAC title in their last run together.
“It’s pretty simple for me. I’ve had the liberty of playing with two quarterbacks in Jake Nelson and Justin Lane,” Stolz said. “Jake doesn’t compare to Justin at all. With the production on the field, Justin’s better. With leadership and the aspect of rallying around not just the o-line but the receivers, he’s really good at doing that. After long drives or three and outs, we’ll all get together and figure out what’s going on, and he’s calm with that.”
While Coach Shoemaker gave the starting job to Jake Nelson when he arrived in Ellensburg, he is happy things have worked out the way they have with Lane over the past two seasons.
“Justin’s done a great job,” Shoemaker said. “We voted him as a captain as a team this year, that shows his leadership. He’s taken great strides since taking over the position last year and has done a great job at the leadership role behind the center. He’s not turning over the ball, which is huge for our success.”
For Justin Lane, there’s nothing he would do different by coming to Central. While he loves Ellensburg, the people he’s met here, and being surrounded by a great team, Lane knows that he can’t stay here forever.
“I definitely gotta get out of here,” Lane, a Construction Management major, said. “Ellensburg won’t be home. I’d like to be here, but my career will take me elsewhere. And I’m perfectly okay with that.”Jack Lambert