After injuries to three key seniors, redshirt freshmen Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers have been pressed into duty at inside linebacker this year. WSU LB coach Ken Wilson says they'll be just fine

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Ken Wilson said his veteran linebackers laughed at him last weekend as they watched him coach Washington State freshmen Justus Rogers and Jahad Woods through their first outing as a linebacking tandem in WSU’s 33-10 win over Oregon.

Peyton Pelluer, Isaac Dotson and Nate DeRider, the three senior linebackers WSU started the year with, were all on the injured list by the end of the Oregon game. Pelluer’s been out for almost a month now with a broken foot, and is currently recovering from surgery. Dotson and DeRider both left the Oregon game in succession with injuries.

Which is how WSU found itself down to its fourth-string middle linebacker – Rogers – and Woods, originally Dotson’s backup at will linebacker, against the Ducks.

“They were laughing that I coached the young guys differently in the game,” Wilson said, referring to his trio of seasoned walking wounded. “They were saying, ‘You put your arm around them, you’re out there on the field with them talking one-on-one.’ And I told them, “Yeah, I had to do that with you guys too, once upon a time.’”

Woods was making his third career start, while Rogers, who played quarterback at Bellevue High before switching to defense at WSU, was playing his first meaningful defensive snaps in a football game since his junior varsity days in high school.

So Wilson paid a little more attention to Woods and Rogers, staying in close touch throughout the game. Other that than, nothing changed on defense for the Cougars as the freshmen plugged into the system and picked up right where the seniors had left off.

The easy transition is due in part to how simple WSU’s defensive scheme is, and in part to how Wilson has always crosstrained his players in multiple positions, he says.

“For a long time, I was coaching in I-AA, and when you’re in those positions, you don’t have as many guys, so you’re constantly cross-training guys for reps and teaching them different positions because you don’t have as much depth,” Wilson said. “It’s worked out here because most of my guys have played both positions or three linebacker positions.”

It’s somewhat fitting that all this shuffling at linebacker comes right before eighth-ranked WSU (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) travels to the Bay Area to play Cal (3-3, 0-3) this Friday.

The Cal game last year springboarded another career backup into the defensive rotation at inside linebacker when DeRider, a former walk-on, was thrust into action at will linebacker after Dotson exited with an injury. He played well, even coming up with an interception of former Cal QB Davis Webb.

Now, with a depleted linebacking corps, the Cougars will once again turn to young talent to fill the void against the Golden Bears.

There’s a chance that DeRider could play this week. The senior from Bellevue limped off the field against Oregon favoring his right knee, but the injury didn’t look too serious because DeRider spent the rest of the evening pedaling the exercise bike in uniform on the sidelines and doing some footwork drills as if to test the knee.

Dotson, on the other hand, left the game and was not seen on the sidelines again. WSU does not address injuries, but Wilson hinted Tuesday that Dotson could be back this season.

Asked what the Cougars had left behind Rogers in case of another injury at inside linebacker, Wilson said, “Dillon Sherman can play both (mike and will) and Dominick Silvels can play both. Isaac is rehabbing. There’s a ton of different options. The good news is that we’ve recruited well now and have been here five years and have bodies that we feel great about putting out on the football field.”

Wilson said Rogers and Sherman will get more reps with the first team this week, and mentioned freshman linebacker Cole Dubots as someone who’s “had a good fall and taken reps.”

Rogers has played on special teams in every game this year, but got his very first defensive reps in garbage time against Nevada.

“He did really well. We’re really happy with him,” Wilson said of Rogers’ play against Oregon, adding that the young linebacker surprised him in a good way. “We’ve seen him on special teams, and in spring ball and fall camp, so it wasn’t like he was an unknown commodity. He was physical and hit the quarterback on the one interception we got, and had some good open field tackles. We liked what we saw.”

Rogers had three tackles in the Oregon game. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he’s put on more than 10 pounds since he signed with WSU.

He started out at quarterback for WSU but moved to defense after a semester. Rogers initially began his defensive career as a nickelback, before switching to inside linebacker this spring because “he was getting bigger and bigger” and growing into the positon, Wilson said.

Similarly, Woods has also made a seamless transition into his starting role at will linebacker.

The 6-foot, 214-pounder from Helix High in San Diego is usually a pretty quiet guy, but he takes on a different persona on the field, WSU coach Mike Leach says.

“He’s been a good player around here for a long time. He doesn’t say much, but he’s always hit a ton,” Leach said. “Some people can generate a great deal of power. He’s one of them, and he’s done a good job stepping in and playing early. … It really hasn’t fazed him much. He’s really steady for a young guy.”

Woods had a key sack and forced fumble against USC, and also had a big outing last week, finishing third on the team with seven tackles, including one for loss.

“I’m way more comfortable than before,” Woods said after the win over Oregon. “It’s just a matter of getting reps in practice and translating over to the game.”

In the meantime, even though Pelluer and Dotson can’t participate in practice yet, they help coach the young linebackers and have made an effort to stay involved in everything.

Wilson said Pelluer and Dotson both went without dinner Monday night because they went straight from rehab and into special teams meetings before going out to the practice field.

“My senior linebackers sit in on every (special teams) meeting and take notes so that if the younger guys have questions, they can ask them. It’s (a source of) pride for me because I don’t ask them to do that.”Wilson said. “I can’t tell you how important it is to have the experienced guys like Peyton Pelluer and Isaac Dotson and Nate DeRider in the program where, if the young guys have a question and I’m not around, they can ask those (older) guys.

“We didn’t have those guys when they were coming up in the program. They’re invaluable. On the field or off the field, they’re out there with our linebackers and it’s great having them here.”