The Highland football team knew a breakout season was guaranteed for Jake Rogers. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound junior was too fast, naturally gifted and mentally grounded.
But getting the ball 25 times per game and playing the bulk of the year at running back? That wasn’t part of the plan.
Heading into the summer, Hornets coach Mike Gibbons, who also is the offensive coordinator, was envisioning something in the ballpark of 15 touches for slot receiver Rogers, 15 for running back Brent Ponikvar, 10 carries for quarterback Matthew Earnest and five catches apiece for tight end Ryan Frederick, split end Jake Sir Louis and slot receiver Evan Kasulones. That type of balance combined with Earnest’s decision-making would be impossible for opponents to contain.
Reality ruined the dream, however, as a tweaked hamstring continued to plague indoor 60-meter dash state champion Kasulones, while Ponikvar, who was well on the way to a breakout season himself, tore an ACL covering a kickoff in Week 3 at North Royalton.
Rogers was the next man up both times and has produced a feature-length highlight film as fourth-seeded Highland (9-2) gears up to play top-seeded Avon (11-0) in a Division II, Region 6 semifinal tonight at Strongsville’s Pat Catan Stadium.
“I was expecting to be more of a slot, honestly, like a jet-sweep guy,” he said. “Special teams has always been my thing, but I didn’t think I’d be getting the ball 30 times a game at this point. It’s definitely changed more than I expected.”
The all-purpose yardage is gaudy, beginning with 179 rushes for 1,272 yards and 12 touchdowns. Then there are 32 catches for 534 yards (434 after catch) and six scores, 12 kickoff returns for 309 yards (25.8 average), 19 punt returns for 416 yards (21.9) and three TDs and three interceptions for 36 yards.
That adds to 245 touches for 2,567 yards and 21 touchdowns and doesn’t include a two-point conversion catch against Tallmadge. The previous all-purpose school record was 2,123 on 296 touches by 2009 Gazette MVP Aaron Maslowski, who earned preferred walk-on status at Toledo.
In layman’s terms, Rogers averages 22 touches for 233 yards and two scores per game despite opposing coaches doing all they can to scheme against him in all three phases.
“First of all, he’s an unbelievable athlete,” Kasulones said. “He’s just got so many great qualities as a player. He’s a hard worker who eats, lives and breathes football. That’s what he’s all about. Basically, when you think of Jake Rogers, you think of what he does on the field.
“He’s very agile, he’s fast, he’s quick, he’s smart, he’s light on his feet. Something opens up before you even know it’s there and he takes it.”
Rogers was comfortable in his season-opening role. He’d terrorize by returning kicks and punts — more on that in a bit — and stretch defenses by running jet sweeps and working underneath routes as a slot receiver. He’d also start at cornerback until multi-year starter Kasulones was 100 percent healthy.
The plan was working flawlessly, as Rogers had 13 carries for 49 yards, 13 catches for 127 yards, six kickoff/punt returns for 148 yards, one interception for 36 yards and three touchdowns in wins over Brunswick and Medina. The average of 16.5 touches kept Rogers fresh.
Then Ponikvar ripped up his knee when backup Max Beier already was shelved with a sprained ankle and everything changed. Rogers quickly adjusted to his old youth position, rushing for 233 yards and three TDs on 19 carries in his first start, a 34-17 win at Kent Roosevelt.
In eight starts at running back, Rogers has deftly avoided big hits and subsequent wear and tear on his body while averaging 19 carries for 146 yards among 23 all-purpose touches for 250 yards.
“It hurts. After every game I take an ice bath,” said Rogers, who also has 31 tackles and a team-leading nine pass breakups. “But throughout the game, I keep going. (My teammates) depend on me, so I’ve just got to keep pushing to stay in the game.
“I don’t like taking unnecessary hits, so if I’m just running out of bounds I don’t want to get drilled all the time. I’ll step out if I’m right there. Then (running inside) I stay low and fall forward or if I’m held up, I’ll fall down so I don’t get drilled.”
Despite all the roles Rogers has been asked to fill, one hasn’t changed — returning punts — and stunningly it took nearly 20 games for the opposition to consistently boot away from him.
The return game is where Rogers’ elite vision truly shines, as he often angles toward the wall of blockers building along the sideline or, like against Tallmadge, makes one cut and splits upwards of five defenders.
Rogers’ numbers may never be duplicated. In his career, he has 32 returns for 760 yards (23.8) and four touchdowns. Seven returns have gone for more than 40 yards, including the school record of 77 against Aurora, and he is the first Medina County player with at least four scores since Medina’s Jim Johnson — the area’s first all-purpose maestro — had eight from 1940-42.
With at minimum 11 games left in his career, Rogers has a shot to catch what was thought to be one of the county’s most unbreakable records.
“He has such a quick burst,” Gibbons said. “When he stops and gets started again, it’s faster than anyone I’ve ever seen before.”
Confident and a hard worker with virtually no ego — “Everyone’s talking, so I’m going to try not to listen,” he said with a smile — Rogers will no doubt make a college very happy to receive his signature. For the record, he’s visited Akron and Kent State.
In the meantime, Rogers will continue to do everything for a Hornets team that isn’t ready to end the season quite yet.
Just give Rogers the ball. It’s when amazing happens.
“Tiring, very sore, but it’s worth it,” he said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for the team.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or email@example.com.