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Sports >  WSU football

‘We’ve been fortunate to do this for so long’: Washington State linebackers Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers turn in unexpectedly historic careers

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 20, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – At the beginning of their Washington State football careers, they weren’t sure when they’d see the field. Any real shot of playing time seemed a long way off.

By the end, linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers will have appeared in more contests in crimson and gray than any other Cougars player in history.

Friday marked game No. 54 for both, tying the program’s career record set three years ago by former linebacking star Peyton Pelluer.

It’s been a familiar sight since 2017: Woods lined up at his weakside post alongside Rogers, manning the middle.

“It’s crazy. I knew I played a lot, but I can’t believe it’s been that many games,” said Woods, also WSU’s all-time leader in starts (49). “I never thought I’d have a record that would hold so much weight.

“I never thought this day would come, to be honest. My last home game, it’s going to be something I’ll remember forever.”

The sixth-year Cougars were two of 14 players given a proper Palouse send-off Friday on senior night at Gesa Field. Woods was particularly bright as WSU drubbed Arizona 44-18 to lock up bowl eligibility.

It’ll be the fourth bowl game in which the tandem has appeared.

The WSU record for career games shared by Woods and Rogers will likely extend to 56 by season’s end. Presumably, it’s a record that will stand for years to come.

“I think the only way it’ll be broken again is if someone has played since their freshman year, and the Pac-12 extends the season,” Woods said. “Something crazy would have to happen. It’s going to be there for a long time.”

The duo has participated in every game for the Cougars’ defense this season and over the past four, including the four-game, coronavirus-affected campaign in 2020.

They opted to return for one last hurrah in 2021, an extra season granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic’s disruptions a year ago.

“One day, I’m going to look back at these numbers, and it’s going to be a ‘wow’ moment,” said Rogers, who took a backup role to Pelluer in 2018 before sliding back into the starting lineup a year later. “Just the experiences I had here, the extra year, the people I’ve met, the connections.

“It’s weird. Because we had those extra couple of games in the COVID year, I’m not sure (the record) is fair or not.”

In any case, it should be a matter of pride for two players who came to Pullman without expectations of someday leaving as Cougar legends.

Woods recalls phoning his father at an early point of his redshirt freshman season in 2017. WSU’s linebacking room was stacked, featuring notables like Pelluer and Isaac Dotson, and Woods was an under-the-radar recruit. He said his lone Division I offer came from the Cougars.

“I don’t know. It might be a while till I play,” Woods told his dad. “I talked to him about maybe transferring to get a chance to play, but no, I’m just going to keep grinding, and it ended up working out.

“I knew I could compete at this level. I saw it was a golden opportunity to (come to WSU).”

Three games into the year, Pelluer suffered a season-ending injury and Woods was forced into action.

In his second-career start, Woods broke out against No. 5 USC, forcing a game-clinching fumble on a sack.

The San Diego native has been a fixture in the Cougars’ defense since.

“Unfortunately, Peyton got hurt, and my number was called,” he said.

“I was thrown into the fire, but I was ready. … It’s funny to look back and see how skinny I was. I just remember being so rattled by everything, and now I’m used to it.”

Rogers’ route into the record books was more complicated. He arrived in spring 2016 as an early high school graduate and a dual-threat quarterback recruit with “a lot of guys in front of me” at the position.

Two practices into fall camp, former coach Mike Leach sat Rogers down.

Although he hadn’t been a defender since the underclassmen stage of his prep career, Rogers figured playing on that side of the ball would give him the best chance to make an impact early on.

“I was a dual threat and it was the Air Raid,” he said. “I knew (defense) was an option. They recruited me as an athlete, and they were the only school to recruit me at quarterback. Leach shot it straight: I was going to get on the field faster on defense.”

Rogers worked as an outside linebacker and an edge rusher, and took some practice reps at nickel before coaches – perhaps noticing the rookie’s advanced shrewdness – moved him to middle linebacker, a spot that requires savvy.

“I get asked a lot, ‘If I would have opened my recruiting from quarterback to other positions, would I have (left)?’ ” Rogers said. “I don’t think so. I don’t see myself being anywhere else.”

He saw some action on special teams in the first few weeks of the 2017 season, then more injuries decimated the linebacker position. Rogers joined Woods in the starting lineup in Week 7 at California.

“I kinda got thrust in,” Rogers said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Woods and Rogers agreed: Their Cougars careers “flew by.”

“It’s been a crazy ride, man,” Woods said. “I’ve been a part of some insane games. I can’t even keep count of the comebacks and close games we’ve won. It’s hard to describe. I’ve been blessed with a really good college career. I’ve been able to soak it in. I’ve appreciated every second, every moment.”

The Cougars have benefited from stability at linebacker over these past few years. Having played side by side for half a decade, Woods and Rogers are joined at the hip.

“We’ve been fortunate to do this for so long, and we have that relationship where it’s easy to communicate with each other,” Woods said. “That type of bond, it matters.”

Multiple times Woods has tabbed Rogers as “the smartest guy on the defense.”

Rogers’ career numbers stand at 198 tackles and 19.5 for loss. He’s had a hand in four of WSU’s 23 takeaways this year – a turnover total that ranks fourth in the FBS – but his importance transcends statistics.

Composed and well-versed in offensive schemes, Rogers is a cerebral defender who’s often “telling people what to do, making everybody’s job easier,” Woods noted.

Woods is distinguished by his durability, motor and smash-mouth style.

“He brings energy when he makes those big plays – his staple, his big hits,” Rogers said.

Woods has had an eye on the NFL since his childhood. Rogers has a job in accounting lined up, and plans to hang up the cleats after WSU’s bowl game.

Woods will conclude his collegiate career as one of only four Cougars with over 400 tackles. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder also sits atop the program’s leaderboard in fumbles forced (10) and ranks seventh with 36 tackles for loss.

He stripped a ball free from an Arizona ball-carrier on Friday and stretched out for a fingertip interception in the fourth quarter for the final of countless highlights at Martin Stadium/Gesa Field.

Considering his productivity across five steady seasons, Woods will surely get looks from pro franchises.

“I pride myself on consistency,” he said, summing up his pitch to scouts. “A lot of guys rely on talent, and I’m not the biggest or tallest. I have a lot of consistency in my work ethic and that allows me to stay on the field. A lot can happen, as far as injuries, so I prepare the right way physically.

“Obviously, some factors had to go into it, but I think (starting 50 games) points to how well I prepared.”

Rogers, astute in play and in the classroom, tutors WSU student-athletes to “give back” to the school “in any way I can.” He earned an accounting degree last December and five job offers earlier this fall.

Upon leaving WSU, he intends to work for Berntson Porter, an accounting firm based in Bellevue that was co-founded by Gregory Porter – a Cougar lineman in the 1980s.

“I’m blessed to have had the experience I did here,” Rogers said. “I got a job out of here. I’m set. My parents can’t say they didn’t raise me right.”

On the surface, Woods and Rogers are soft-spoken and easygoing in their demeanors, but their veteran voices have been crucial throughout this up-and-down season. WSU coaches tasked the pair, among several other seniors, to set an example and provide guidance in the wake of WSU’s coaching turmoil last month.

The Cougars’ response, winning two of their four games since and continuing to play inspired defense, was “player-driven,” interim coach Jake Dickert said Friday.

“I think it was a distraction, for sure, but we’ve been through worse and I knew it was something I could handle,” Woods said. “From my standpoint, I had to control what I could control – that’s my body language, my energy, emotions – because I’m a leader on this team and people look to me.

“I’m naturally introverted, but as I progressed and learned from other people, I became more of a vocal leader.”

Before Woods and Rogers took their turns jogging out of the tunnel at Gesa Field, holding flags and flowers and embracing their relatives on an emotional Friday night, they were given an opportunity to address the team and offer sage advice.

Asked Wednesday what knowledge they planned to impart, Woods and Rogers had the same answer, nearly word for word: “Don’t take it for granted. It flies by.”

And that’s coming from WSU’s two longest-tenured players.

Woods’ NFL dream arises

Woods thought back to a day in which he settled on the goal of fashioning a future from football.

At 8 years old, he and his Pop Warner squad were invited to a team get-together hosted by their coach, whose son, La’Roi Glover, played defensive tackle in the NFL from 1996-2008.

While at the Glover family home, Woods was inspired when he saw Glover appear in a commercial.

“Something clicked,” Woods said. “That was really cool. I loved football, and I just knew then that I wanted to pursue it.”

About six years later, Woods turned heads as a freshman at Helix High, earning a call-up to varsity – rare for freshmen at the school of around 2,400, he said.

Now, whenever Woods visits home, prep athletes ask for autographs from the potential pro.

“I’m not used to that yet,” he laughed.

“I’m making my younger self proud.”

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