By Robert Wilson
No college football player in the country has likely been through more heartache and adversity in the offseason than Brandon High alumnus and Mississippi State record-setting senior quarterback Will Rogers.
Rogers’ head coach, mentor and close friend Mike Leach passed away two and a half weeks after Rogers and Leach combined to give MSU a 24-22 victory over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl last Thanksgiving Day.
Words like gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, unthinkable, and devastating are an understatement to what Rogers’ emotions were like. But Rogers, who many consider wise and mature beyond his years, battled through the pain.
“At the end of the day, it’s life,” said Wyatt Rogers, Will’s father who was also his offensive coordinator at Brandon. “Sometimes you have to grow up faster than you want to. Coach Leach always taught Will to look forward, get ready for the next play. Get ready for what’s in front of you. That’s what Will is doing now. He’s a good kid. He was quieter than normal for a few months. We’ve always talked about looking ahead. The past is the past. Will’s a tough kid, he doesn’t show much emotion. I’ve talked to him about adversity. That’s the one constant you will have in your life. Things aren’t going to go your way all the time in life. You have to deal with it and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Adversity is coming. I’m very proud of how Will has handled it.”
“Will and Coach Leach were so close,” said Judy Rogers, Will’s mother. “They both loved the game of football. Will said he misses Coach Leach not only because of him being his football coach, but they were also kind of buddies. Coach Leach would call Will randomly and ask Will things that had nothing to do with football. It’s been hard, but Will has amazed me how he has responded to all of this. He has handled it with a level of maturity that’s just incredible.”
“His competitiveness is what makes Will such a great quarterback,” first-year MSU head coach Zach Arnett said. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. Will shows up to work every day and he’s hungry. I think he holds 29 school passing records, an SEC completion record and despite all that all he wants to do is win.
“Coach Leach was a great coach and a great guy,” Will Rogers said. “We are going to try to honor him in everything we do and get a bunch of wins for him.”
Leach, 61, passed away from complications after having a heart attack. He was a head coach for 21 seasons – the last three at MSU – and was National Coach of the Year twice and transformed the game with introduction of the Air Raid offense to college football, breaking tons of passing records.
MSU will honor Leach throughout the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana Saturday in Starkville (3 p.m. on SEC Network). Also, Leach’s family will be honored with a presentation at the end of the first quarter.
Coach Leach’s passing away wasn’t the only adversity Rogers had to deal with. When Arnett was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, he hired Kevin Barbay as his new offensive coordinator. Leach ran the Air Raid, pass happy offense and Rogers blossomed in the offense for the past three seasons, so much so he set SEC records for single season completions and career completions and school records for career passing yards, career passing TDs, single season TDs and most 300-yard passing games and 200-yard passing games. Rogers fit Leach’s Air Raid offense perfectly, with his wisdom of the game, accuracy, and ability to find the open receiver. Barbay runs a more traditional type of balanced offense with the run and pass and Rogers had to learn an entire new scheme and playbook.
“It was a double whammy for Will,” Wyatt Rogers said. “He had to put his best foot forward. He has been studying film constantly. He is to the point now where the glass is more than half full instead of being half empty. It was tough walking into that building for the first time and not only not seeing Coach Leach, but none of the offensive staff were there either. But these guys are grinders and they have been good for Will. He has stuck his nose into his computer and notebook and found out what Coach Barbay wants him to do. I have faith in Will and he’s going to do the right thing on and off the field. He has progressed with his knowledge of the game tremendously. Will has impressed me in that regard. He has poured himself into it.”
“It is the most confident I’ve been in my game,” Will Rogers said. “I know who I am and how I work and how I prepare. I have no doubts in any system. Coach Barbay can get his playmakers the ball and utilizing his personnel. He finds creative ways to get guys the ball. I continue to get more consistent and more familiar with the new system, new terminology, and the progression on each play.”
Will Rogers isn’t the only member of his family to face adversity in the offseason. His younger brother Luke – the 2022 PriorityOne Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Football Player of the Year last season – led Brandon to a 12-2 record and a MHSAA Class 6A runner-up finish last season and signed with Southern Miss. He graduated in December so he could get an early grasp on the Southern Miss offense and participate in spring practice. But things didn’t work out that way. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound center suffered a back injury lifting weights with Will over the Christmas holidays and had surgery in January.
“It was crazy, it was the night before we were to leave to take Luke down to Hattiesburg to school,” Wyatt Rogers said. “He ruptured a disc, and he went to the doctors in Hattiesburg and had surgery. It was disappointing because Luke was so excited to get down there for spring ball and had to sit out. But he’s been doing well. He’s battling for the backup center position and might get to play Saturday (against Alcorn in the season opener in Hattiesburg, 6 p.m. on ESPN plus).”
“Luke is such a hard worker,” Judy Rogers said. “He loves the game like his brother. When they come home, they don’t just chill at the house. They are always doing something, usually up at Brandon High, working out.
“Luke is working so hard to get back and compete for that position. He wants to be the guy and will do what it takes to get there.”
“Luke Rogers is a Southern Miss kind of guy, a Will Hall kind of guy,” Southern Miss coach Will Hall said. “He’s tough, old school, the kind of players who want down here. He comes from a football family.”
Rogers started at offensive left tackle as a sophomore and a junior but was moved to center as a senior. He was the rated No. 3 inside offensive lineman in Mississippi in the Class of 2023 by 247 Sports.
Will and Luke’s parents have a good problem trying to watch their kids play college football in two different places.
“We are blessed to be this position,” Wyatt Rogers said. “I’m going to go to watch Luke this Saturday and Judy is going to go watch Will. Then depending on how the season goes, we will swap up some. One of us will be at each of their games.”
One Saturday they won’t have to worry about being at separate games. MSU plays host to Southern Miss Nov. 18 in Starkville.
Will and Luke have a solid foundation, thanks to their parents. “We taught all of our children (older sister Anna Grace is an Ole Miss graduate and a math instructor at MSU) to focus on the things you can control,” Judy Rogers said. “And understand that things don’t always plan out the way you wish they would. You need to trust in the Lord and know He has their best interests at heart. Adversity is a part of the game and a part of life.”