Jeff Ogden doesn’t remember ever telling his older brother, Pat, how much he missed football. Or how he would sneak away after track practice on those autumn afternoons in Oregon City, Ore., just to catch the end of a junior high game.
It was the fall of 1993, and Jeff was a freshman pole vaulter at Clackamas Community College. Pat, a former four-year letterwinner as a defensive back at Eastern Washington University, was working as a recreational therapist at a Spokane hospital.
The two were nearly 400 miles apart, yet Pat somehow sensed his brother’s discontent. So he approached first-year EWU head coach Mike Kramer and his assistant Jim McElwain and asked them to take a look at Jeff as a potential wide receiver.
Kramer and McElwain decided to take a chance on the younger Ogden and agreed to pick up the tab for his tuition at Eastern, provided he proved himself during spring drills the following semester.
“Out of the blue, my brother calls me up one night and said Coach McElwain is going to give you a call and pretty much have you come up this spring for a tryout to play football,” Jeff Ogden recalled. “He didn’t know how much I wanted to play; we never talked about it. It seemed like God really opened the door for me, and it’s worked out.”
Worked out better, no doubt, than Kramer or McElwain, who has since left to become the offensive coordinator at Montana State, could have imagined.
Today, after fighting off a career-threatening back injury and his early image as a possession-type pass catcher, Jeff Ogden has emerged as the big-play receiver on a nationally ranked Eastern team that is 7-1 heading into Saturday’s 1:05 p.m. non-conference matchup against Idaho (4-4) at Joe Albi Stadium.
The 6-foot, 187-pound senior has caught 40 passes for 821 yards and a Big Sky Conference-high 10 touchdowns. He leads the Sky and ranks eighth nationally with an average of 102.6 receiving yards per game. Also, he is on pace to shatter Jason Anderson’s single-season school record of 1,060 reception yards.
In addition, Ogden is three touchdown catches from tying Eastern’s single-season record of 13, set by Curt Didier in 1978. And all of this from a young man who was all but invisible while catching 13 passes during his first three seasons at Eastern.
As a sophomore, Ogden started Eastern’s first three games at split end and caught two passes before being diagnosed with a hairline fracture of a vertebrae in his back. The injury, which doctors originally thought might end his career, kept him sidelined the rest of the year, but healed in time for Ogden to regain his starting spot the following spring.
But as a junior, he was seldom the Eagles’ featured receiver, and he finished the year with modest numbers (10 catches for 216 yards) that gave little indication of the explosiveness he has exhibited this fall.
“I guess I didn’t really expect to be as productive as I’ve been,” admitted Ogden, who played quarterback and running back at Snohomish High School. “But I always felt I could score if I was put in the right position.”
Ogden was put in the right position last spring when he was moved from split end to slotback, the position so capably manned last season by Antwan Miller.
“This year, being the inside receiver, I carry a lot of the hot routes, where if (opponents) are blitzing, they look to get the ball to me,” he explained. “I’m definitely in better position to make big catches now.”
Ogden, who had not caught a touchdown pass in college, hauled in three in each of Eastern’s first two games this fall. But it wasn’t until he did the same thing against national power Montana that he caught the eye of those who follow I-AA football.
In a 40-35 upset of the Grizzlies in Missoula, Ogden caught scoring passes of 86, 3 and 67 yards from Eagles quarterback and close friend Harry Leons. He gave the 19,000-plus fans a brief look at his 4.37 40-yard dash speed by outrunning a pair of defenders on his first TD catch. But he was even more impressive on the 67-yarder, taking a pass over the middle and finding another gear as he cut around a startled Grizzlies safety and raced untouched to the end zone.
“That kind of surprised them,” said Ogden, who was honored as ESPN/USA Today’s I-AA Player of the Week for his six-catch, 217-yard performance. “Quite a few people have approached me since then and told me they didn’t think I was that fast.”
Kramer knew all along that Ogden possessed the speed a big-play receiver needs. He was just never sure if he was tough enough to play inside.
“He has, by far, the most speed of any of our wide receivers,” Kramer said. “But to be honest with you, when you talk to him, he doesn’t seem like a rough and tumble guy. So we were always a little fearful he wouldn’t make the type of blocks required of our inside receiver.”
But each season Ogden improved his strength and speed, prompting Kramer to take a second look at him in the slot.
“We started thinking maybe he could do it, and he has,” Kramer said. “He’s an adequate blocker, because he’s strong and has strong hands, and he’s as productive a receiver as we’ve had since Jason Anderson.
“You have to be able to hang your hat on somebody, and right now Jeff’s that guy.”
What ultimately convinced Kramer to entrust Ogden with the physical, yet cerebral, duties of an inside receiver was his ability to make teammate Maurice Perigo, a second-team All-American strong safety, look so average during blitz drills.
“Every Tuesday, the last 10 minutes of practice was always our blitz period where the No. 1 offense would go against the No. 1 defense,” Kramer explained. “And every night, Harry would look for Jeff and Jeff would torch Mo. And I’ll tell ya what, Mo got pretty frustrated.
“So, as Jeff emerges as a star, Mo is leading the cheers on the sidelines, saying, ‘See, it wasn’t just me.’ In fact, Perigo is probably getting a bigger kick out of it than anybody on our team.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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