SAN DIEGO – It takes top-level speed, physical toughness and mental fortitude to thrive as an inside linebacker at Washington State. What it does not take, necessarily, is any sort of experience playing inside linebacker.
Ken Wilson’s meeting room is largely made up of former offensive skill players who were recruited into the defensive world because they displayed agility, tenacity and a nose for the football. Starting senior Mike linebacker Isaac Dotson was a standout quarterback at Bellevue’s Newport High School before making the flip at WSU. Dotson’s backup, Justus Rogers, was a handful for opposing defenses as a dual-threat QB during his days at Bellevue High.
Dotson and Rogers got their Homecoming when the Cougars closed the regular season at Washington in the Nov. 25 Apple Cup and if they have any tips about handling the anxiety of playing in front of a home crowd – or how to go about snagging a few more player tickets – it might be best to pass along to another set of inside linebackers before Thursday’s Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium.
Native San Diegans Jahad Woods and Dominick Silvels would be grateful.
“I’m struggling to get more (tickets),” Woods said. “It’s a struggle because half of the team is from southern California, so it’s super hard.”
Woods and Silvels fit into the same category as Dotson and Rogers – burgeoning defensive players who have a rich history on the other side of the ball.
And in the case of the San Diego linebackers, it’s also a shared history.
“We were real good friends when we were younger,” Silvels said.
Woods and Silvels estimate they were 8 or 9 years old when they landed on the same Pop Warner football team. The Valencia Park Hornets may have been thin at other positions, but one thing they didn’t lack was pop in the backfield. Woods and Silvels, interchangeable at running back and fullback, provided plenty of offensive horsepower.
“I was real dominant back in the day,” Woods said, “because I was bigger than everyone else, but everyone caught up to me.”
Most college recruiters didn’t look beyond Woods’ measurables. He only grew to 6 feet and weighed just a shade over 200 pounds coming out of Helix High School. WSU and San Jose State were the only programs that stayed tuned.
“As a defensive staff, we probably watched him 10, 12 times and his size was something that we had some initial concerns about,” Wilson said. “But the more you watch film and game after game, he’s just productive and his size wasn’t a detriment, his speed was unbelievable and he’s a really productive guy.”
Alex Grinch and his assistants weren’t so interested in how many plates the Helix linebacker could put on a barbell, but they did want a list of his times in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dash. Woods ran all three events for the Highlanders track and field team.
Wilson and the Cougars were sold on the All-CIF San Diego Section first teamer. It didn’t hurt Woods’ case that his cousin, Marlon Johnson, was a four-year starting strong safety for Wilson at Nevada.
“He still takes credit for us recruiting (Woods),” Wilson laughed. “That’s not true, but that’s what he says.”
A redshirt season in 2016 helped bring Woods up to speed and the Cougars didn’t regress when they had to call their rookie into action after both of the team’s starting senior middle linebackers went down with injuries.
The Hallmark play of Woods’ season – and one that may end up being the top highlight of his career reel – came in late September when the Cougars were hosting then fifth-ranked USC. The Trojans, trailing 30-27, had second-and-10 from their own 25-yard line with 1:30 to play in the fourth quarter. Heralded SC quarterback Sam Darnold took the snap and Woods, on a linebacker blitz, shot through a hole to pummel Darnold. The Trojan signal-caller let the ball out of his hands and WSU’s Derek Moore recovered. An ocean of Cougar fans flooded the field.
“That’s going to be a play I tell everybody forever,” said Woods, who’s recorded 61 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, one interception and one forced fumble this season.
Silvels’ recruiting process was also stunted by something out of his control. His high school program at Patrick Henry wasn’t an established winner like Woods’ at Helix. The Patriots were barely above .500 Silvels’ senior year, finishing 6-5, but they were 5-7 when he was a junior “so we had to watch him a little bit more,” Wilson said.
Patrick Henry, the same school that produced Dezmon Patmon (Fun fact: Mike Leach’s wife Sharon is also a PHHS graduate), employed Silvels as a running back/corner/kick returner. He racked up 1,230 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns on offense, along with 22 tackles and six pass breakups on defense.
Wilson saw a future linebacker in someone who’d never played the position and he does admit, “We had to project a little bit there.”
But a leap of faith paid off.
“He was returning 100-yard kickoff returns and then when you bring him in, you see the size of him and you see the potential there,” Wilson said. “And just the way he goes about his business and the maturity he has. We could see that physically and mental toughness, he had the linebacker traits. It was just he hadn’t played it much.”
Silvels wasn’t supposed to play at all as a true freshman, but the spate of injuries that made Woods a first-year starter gave Silvels a chance to play as a reserve. He’s only recorded one takedown this year, but figures to be in the mix plenty next season as the Cougars move forward without a trio of seniors that includes Dotson, Peyton Pelluer and Nate DeRider.
“He’s a hard hitter, man, and he’s a quick learner too,” Woods said of his former Pop Warner backfield mate. “I remember last year when I was a freshman, I don’t think I was learning the playbook as fast as he was, so I think he’s a quick learner, he plays hard, he plays fast and that’s what the coaching staff expects of him.”
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