Two years ago, Jeff Waldner came to a hard-to-swallow, dream-ending realization.
He wasn’t good enough to be a running back. Not at Olympia High School, and not with Dylan Parsons and Jordan Pine ahead of him.
“Ever since fifth grade, I had always been a running back,” Waldner said. “It was the glory position.”
But as a third-stringer during his junior year at Olympia, stuck behind Parsons and Pine, Waldner switched positions, moving to defensive end.
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“I just thought it was my chance of getting on the field,” Waldner said.
It’s a difficult transformation.
And no one – not Waldner, not his high school coaches and not even his own dad – could have ever anticipated where that decision to swap jerseys and positions would lead him.
Waldner is now a defensive end for Washington State, grabbing attention and respect from WSU coaches. At a recent practice, Chad Eaton, the former All-America defensive lineman at WSU and now an assistant coach there, rushed up to Waldner, shouting his name and complimenting him for his play.
While Waldner anticipates being red-shirted, he’s third on the depth chart.
“Jeff is just fearless,” said Guy Boudia, a family friend who watched the Cougars scrimmage on Saturday. “He just worms his way through the offensive line. He’s low and fast and gets penetration. It’s fun to watch.”
Waldner didn’t get WSU’s offer to walk on until June, two months before practice started. He was headed to Linfield College, a NCAA Division III school in Oregon.
But that changed when Mike Levenseller, WSU’s wide receivers coach, called to offer Waldner a walk-on opportunity.
“It was a hard decision, but I wanted to play ball at the highest level I could,” Waldner said.
His unexpected journey from being a backup to being all-state began his junior year at Olympia when he switched positions about the middle of the season. He got only spot duty at defensive end as a junior as he learned how to tackle and how to shed blocks.
Then as a senior, Waldner started every game, finishing with 65 tackles and seven sacks. In hsi first year as a starter, Waldner earned first-team all-state honors as a defensive lineman.
“He was such a pleasant surprise,” said Todd McDougall, the Bears’ defensive coordinator. “To be honest, he wasn’t even the featured defensive end coming into the season. We didn’t really know what to expect from him.”
Waldner adapted quickly. With his 4.9 speed for 40 yards, Waldner is the third-fastest lineman at WSU.
Waldner literally has grown into his position. Now 6-foot-2, his weight has gone from 220 pounds as a high school junior to 242.
“There’s such a different mentality from offense to defense,” McDougall said. “A lot of guys who make the switch don’t do well.”
Waldner’s opportunity to play Pac-10 football came in part because of Matt Elisara, a former all-conference defensive lineman at WSU and now an assistant coach at Olympia. Elisara, who had worked with Waldner during the track season, contacted Levenseller.
Over the summer, Elisara worked with Waldner, putting him through agility drills and showing him technique three times a week.
“He had the connections to WSU,” Waldner said. “That’s what helped me get there.”
When Waldner said goodbye to one dream as a running back, another dream came true as a defensive end.
“I’m just so proud of him,” said Waldner’s dad, Jeff Sr. “He’s having the time of his life.”