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Cougars’ Justus Rogers appears suited for defense

Justus Rogers, who played quarterback at Bellevue, has switched to defense for the Washington State Cougars. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Justus Rogers, who played quarterback at Bellevue, has switched to defense for the Washington State Cougars. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

LEWISTON – Justus Rogers sure overcame a lifelong aversion to turnovers quickly.

The former quarterback and true freshman forced a fumble in his first practice as a defensive player. He intercepted a pass in his second.

“I didn’t even know I forced a fumble until (the defensive players) were screaming,” Rogers said. “I looked back and the ball was on the ground. That was pretty exciting.”

In truth, Rogers probably is not yet thrilled about his transition from quarterback to nickel. He will understandably need some time before he thinks of himself as a defensive player.

After all, he came to WSU to throw the football, not to chase it.

Prior to enrolling early at WSU and playing quarterback throughout spring practices, Rogers started for two years at Bellevue High, leading the prestigious Wolverines program to consecutive appearances in the State 3A championship game.

But while then Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff passed more than he ever had before in order to take advantage of Rogers’ talents, the Wolverines still won with their trademarked Wing-T. In short, Rogers was the quarterback because he was a great athlete, not a quarterback who happened to be one.

As a junior, Rogers threw for 900 yards and rushed for another 400.

The Cougars gave him spring ball and a few practices in preseason camp to show his stuff as a passer. But when it became apparent that – with some seasoning and most likely a redshirt year – Rogers could see the field quicker on defense, the coaches made the switch.

Another reason for the switch may have been the play of some emerging options for the Cougars at quarterback. Walk-on Trey Tinsley, a 6-foot-3, 208-pound sophomore who transferred from Fullerton College has impressed coaches and is competing to be WSU’s third option, behind Luke Falk and Tyler Hilinski.

Anthony Gordon, another sophomore transfer, also has a shot at making the three-deeps right out of San Francisco City College.

At 6-foot-2, 215-pound as a true freshman, Rogers looks like a linebacker.

Rogers has so far lined up primarily at nickel back, an outside linebacker position that is a sort of a hybrid between linebacker and defensive back. Because Rogers is a quarterback, he is cerebral, and his quick thinking has made for a smooth adjustment so far.

“He’s flying around, you know,” outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “Made a position change and has a good opportunity to play. We think it might be a good deal for him. He’s a very, very sharp kid. You would expect that out of a quarterback, or former quarterback. He’s learning the defense still and that will take time, but he has huge upside.”

Rogers is not the first quarterback under Leach to switch to defense, nor would he be the first to do so successfully. Isaac Dotson came to WSU as a quarterback out of Newport High in Bellevue, but converted to safety his freshman year.

Dotson, now a redshirt sophomore, plays backup linebacker and is one of the more feared hitters on the WSU defense. Dotson has always credited his time playing quarterback with giving him unique insight into what opposing offenses are about to throw at the defense, and the hope is that Rogers will have a similar perspective.

Scrimmage Sunday: The Cougars will hold their only scrimmage of preseason camp on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston.

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