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EWU offensive lineman Jake Rodgers paid dues before wins came

Jake Rodgers was recruited as a tight end but has settled in at right tackle on Eastern Washington’s offensive line. (Dan Pelle)
Jake Rodgers was recruited as a tight end but has settled in at right tackle on Eastern Washington’s offensive line. (Dan Pelle)

Sometimes it really is all about gettin’ the ‘W.’

Winning can make the barbells lighter, the injuries more bearable and the trips a lot shorter – especially the bus ride that carried the Eastern Washington football team back from Corvallis, Oregon, last year.

More than anyone on that bus, offensive lineman Jake Rodgers appreciated the moment after the Eagles’ 49-46 win at Oregon State.

“Winning makes it a lot easier to show up and put yourself through all of that, when you’re consistently coming up with a win on Saturdays,” Rodgers said.

And on Thursday and Fridays, for that matter. The wins were always scarce at Shadle Park High and Washington State, where Rodgers spent three years under two coaching staffs before moving to Cheney.

The decision wasn’t easy – the WSU coaches urged him to stay – but he hasn’t looked back in the last 1 1/2 years.

Neither have the Eagles, who are 19-4 in that span, while Washington State has won just 20 games in the last six-plus seasons.

Born and raised in Spokane, Rodgers has stood out from the crowd since he was an eighth-grader, weighing 185 and standing 6-foot-3. His freshman year at Shadle was a dream come true: No longer shackled by the weight limits at the skill positions, he played linebacker and fullback.

“They let us run around and basically kill the other kids – those kids probably weren’t big fans of that,” Rodgers said.

He was all-Greater Spokane League offensive lineman as a junior in 2008, while also playing tight end, defensive end, kicker and punter. Rodgers also earned three letters in basketball, helping the Highlanders to the state tournament as a sophomore.

A three-star prospect as rated by Scout.com, he drew plenty of recruiting attention before signing with Washington State – as a tight end.

“That lasted one day,” said Rodgers, who was promptly fitted for a knee brace and moved to the interior line. Redshirting in the fall of 2010, the 250-pound Rodgers spent afternoons on the WSU practice squad, “getting my butt kicked.”

He played three games the following year and started all 12 games in 2012 as a redshirt sophomore. That included a 24-20 Cougars win over Eastern, the schools’ first meeting in more than a century. The only other win in Mike Leach’s first year was a 31-28 thriller over Washington.

The pain of losing was aggravated by a shoulder injury that dogged Rodgers for most of the season. After sitting out spring ball in 2013, he decided it was time for a change.

“It wasn’t working out for me,” Rodgers said at the time. “I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I guess my heart wasn’t in it, so it didn’t make sense for me to stay.”

But as it turned out, Rodgers’ past was the key to his future. Two of his former roommates in Pullman, wide receiver Blair Bomber and lineman Zackary Johnson, already had transferred to Eastern Washington.

“We’re pretty close,” Rodgers said. “I told Blair that I wanted to transfer, and he let the coaching staff know.”

A winning stance

In Leach’s Air Raid Offense, the wider spreads mean that the offensive linemen “are basically a center and four tackles,” according to Rodgers, who prefers playing tackle partly because he doesn’t have to think on his feet.

“Guard is a lot more cerebral, tackle is a more one-on-one, and I like that aspect of it,” said Rodgers, who now weighs 320.

The tighter spacing and a more diverse offense at Eastern meant a few adjustments for Rodgers, who also playing without a scholarship his first year in Cheney.

“He did it the right way, shut his mouth and got down to business,” offensive line coach Aaron Best said.

“Of course, it was obvious that he had some natural ability that you can’t coach,” Best said.

“Coach Best knows what he’s doing, and does a great job developing a good relationship with his players,” Rodgers said. “That makes it easier to go out there – that he might chew you out one day, but you know it’s for the best.”

A week after the Oregon State win, Rodgers suffered a knee injury against Western Oregon that cost him five games. He returned in midseason and reclaimed his starting spot at right tackle, helping a record- setting offense in a 12-3 season.

“It’s fun to drive up and down the field, and we have the ability to give teams so many different looks,” Rodgers said. “We can pass the ball, or we can line up with two tight ends – we can do both, and it’s a lot of fun.”

This year, in his senior season, Rodgers has been as healthy as a lineman can be in late October. The Eagles are 7-1 going into Saturday’s game at Northern Arizona, the offense is one a roll, and his mother hasn’t missed a game – home or away.

“Getting to see more of my family and being able to play in front of them and everything … having their support means a lot to me,” said Rodgers, a quiet personality whom Best describes as a “humble, gentle giant.”

On the other hand, former roommate Johnson said that when Rodgers is “at his best, he can get the party started.”

When the party ends at EWU, Rodgers hopes for a professional career, perhaps on the scout squad of an NFL team. If that doesn’t work out, he plans to put his exercise science degree to work as a high school coach.

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