Cougars LB Dylan Hanser played his high school football at a small catholic school in Montana where he got little foot traffic from college coaches on the recruiting trail

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Three years into his Washington State career, linebacker Dylan Hanser’s big moment finally came. With the game on the line and UCLA gearing up to embark on a potential game-winning drive, Hanser tracked down Bruins receiver Jordan Lasley, stripping the ball as he made the tackle.

The forced fumble was Hanser’s second of the night, and one of two big defensive plays the Cougars made late against UCLA that helped close out a win.

As the Cougars (4-2 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) begin the second half of their season with a crucial road contest in the desert against Arizona State (5-2, 2-2) this weekend, Hanser, who will make his fifth career start at rush linebacker, has finally come into his own.

“Anybody can go out there and play but we need guys to be productive and show up on the stat sheet with tackles, sacks and forced fumbles,” said WSU assistant coach Roy Manning, who coaches the rush linebackers and nickelbacks. “Last game, that was the biggest step. Dylan was around the quarterback more. Those two forced fumbles he had, the one at the end was a critical play, pure effort and desire.

“I’ll be showing that play for a long time to some of the younger guys as an effort play.”

It’s the sort of impact play Hanser used to make routinely in high school, when he played linebacker and tight end at a small catholic school in his hometown of Billings, Mont. But it’s very likely that Hanser, a junior, would never have graced the field at a Pac-12 football stadium if his father hadn’t spearheaded his recruiting.

Billings Central Catholic is not a place many college football coaches would include as a pit stop on the recruiting trail. Montana, for one, isn’t known as a hot bed of football talent. And even though Central Catholic competes in the state’s second-largest high school sports classification, that doesn’t mean much when you consider that the total enrollment at Central Catholic hovered just over 300 during Hanser’s senior year.

“No one goes to Montana,” said Hanser, who leads WSU with three forced fumbles this season. “When I was (getting) recruited, I had to go to them. You’ve got to show everyone what you’ve got.”

Fortunately for Dylan, his father had some useful contacts. Scott Hanser played linebacker at Wyoming from 1984-88 – one of the three head coaches he played for was Everett native Dennis Erickson – and his position coach in college was John L. Smith, who later became head coach at Arkansas in 2012.

So after Dylan’s sophomore year in high school, Scott called Smith and asked him to take a look at his son.

“He invited us to the Arkansas camp. It was like going to the moon,” Scott said. “But we went so John L. would look at him because I knew he’d be honest with me.”

Smith’s positive evaluation reinforced Scott’s belief that Dylan, with his natural athleticism and good instincts, had the makings of an FBS-caliber linebacker.

During the summer between Dylan’s junior and senior years, father and son made the college camp circuit. A football coach friend of Scott’s told former WSU assistant Eric Russell about Dylan, and Cougars invited the Montanan to camp.

Intrigued by Dylan’s speed and size, WSU offered him a scholarship. Dylan committed to WSU because it was his best offer.

“I set a goal to play at the highest level I could, and when I got this offer, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to play in the Pac-12 versus the Big Sky or Mountain West,” Dylan said.

He joined the Cougars as an early enrollee in January 2014, and quickly proved his mettle as a special teams standout, playing in four games as a freshman and every game as a sophomore.

So far, the two biggest plays of his career have come against UCLA – he blocked a punt against the Bruins in Pasadena last season that came at a critical point in a game that went down to the wire.

But Hanser has had to wait patiently to crack the depth chart on defense.

“Last year, he played rush linebacker the whole year but he was playing behind two seniors, and we didn’t get to see much of him out there aside from special teams,” Manning said. “He’s emerged. It’s a great deal for him to finally get his shot.

At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Hanser has the build of a prototypical edge rusher. Manning says the linebacker’s 10-yard split time is one of the top four on the team, and with his physical tools and eagerness to learn, Hanser is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.

“I’d like to see him get to the quarterback more. Get in the quarterback’s face, get sacks and things of that nature,” Manning said. “Look on film and you’ll see (so many times) our guys are so close to getting to the quarterback, but he gets it off.

“That’s what motivates us to keep chipping away. Keep chopping wood.”