Greg Rogers felt the burn and found it exhilarating. It meant he was playing in a college football game.
UCLA coaches had hoped to redshirt the freshman defensive lineman this season but put him on notice that he might lose that extra year out of necessity if there was a rash of injuries. That moment came Saturday when defensive linemen Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner were hurt against Oregon.
Goodbye, redshirt. Hello, opportunity.
Rogers made the most of it when he helped the Bruins get the penetration they needed on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter, helping fellow defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa force a fumble. The Ducks recovered the ball, but UCLA took over on downs on the way to a 31-14 victory that showcased the promise among its young defenders.
“It was pretty exciting and stuff to see I’m finally getting an opportunity to play,” Rogers said Tuesday.
Rogers said he had been on call a few times earlier this season and prepared for a possible debut by treating his scout team repetitions like game day opportunities. That meant when he got in the game, he already felt like he knew what to do.
“I just treated it like another practice,” he said.
The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Rogers is part of a group of emerging players who possess the bulk the Bruins want on the interior of their defensive line because it can help them stop the run. Redshirt sophomore Chigozie Nnoruka is 6-2 and 295 pounds and true freshman Martin Andrus, who logged his first career tackle against the Ducks, is 6-1 and 300 pounds.
“I like that wide body,” UCLA coach Jim Mora recently said when asked about Andrus. “I don’t mean to sound crass, but when a linebacker is standing back there and there’s a gigantic rear end in front of him and a powerful lower body that can keep a block off him quickly, that’s how you want to play football.”
Rogers moving into the rotation means an elevation to second-string status in practice this week, giving him a break from the scout team as the Bruins (4-3 overall, 2-2 Pac-12 Conference) prepare to play No. 12 Washington (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday at Husky Stadium in Seattle.
Rogers and his fellow young linemen are beginning to prove they’re worthy of bigger challenges.
“It’s great because we’re going to be with each other for a while,” Odighizuwa, a redshirt freshman, said of himself and Rogers, “so when you see a young guy come in and is doing good, that just gives you good hope for the future and how you can build on what you have.”
The wait’s over
It was a return 378 days in the making.
Right tackle Sunny Odogwu made his UCLA debut against Oregon after not having played in more than a year. The graduate transfer had last played as a member of the Miami Hurricanes against Florida State in October 2016 before suffering an ankle injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
It was among a slew of setbacks Odogwu has endured over a career in which he’s had two seasons end prematurely because of injuries and a third start later then he had hoped. True to his first name, Odogwu has remained cheerful amid the challenges he’s faced.
“I was super excited to be back on the field after a year and one week,” Odogwu said. “It was a tough road, but it’s worth everything.”
Mora has said the Bruins would carefully manage Odogwu’s workload considering his injury history. He was slowed for a significant portion of training camp before finally rounding into playing shape in recent weeks.
As much as he wants to play, Odogwu said he’s put his faith in the coaches and trainers about his availability each week.
“I listen to all of them, I trust them and believe in them and just follow their call and do whatever I have to do and give it my all, my 120%,” Odogwu said. “That’s all I know how to do.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch