Tampa Bay Buccaneers pin hopes on Jacquizz Rodgers, their couch-to-30-carries back

Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy (94) tries to slow up Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) during the first half at Bank of America Stadium on Monday, October 10, 2016 in Charlotte, NC. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy (94) tries to slow up Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) during the first half at Bank of America Stadium on Monday, October 10, 2016 in Charlotte, NC. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
Published Oct. 23, 2016

TAMPA — When his number kept getting called over and over and over again, the first six plays and 10 times overall during the first possession at Carolina two weeks ago, Jacquizz Rodgers was actually praying for the Bucs to let someone else have the football.

"That was the first time ever I was hoping a pass play was called in," Rodgers said. "Because I needed a blow."

You can't blame Rodgers for being out of gas, even though he knew he had plenty in the tank when the Chicago Bears cut him days before the season. He sat in his apartment, packing his belongings to ship home to Texas, keeping out a pair of cleats because he wasn't ready to box up his career.

The Bucs signed him two days after they beat the Falcons in the regular-season opener, reuniting him with Dirk Koetter, his offensive coordinator in Atlanta, and giving him the role as the team's No. 3 running back and special teams player.

In his first game at Arizona, Rodgers watched Bucs Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin go down with a hamstring injury. The next week Charles Sims was upended on a sweep and suffered a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve.

Rodgers had never had more than 18 carries in a game during five NFL seasons prior to that 17-14 win at Carolina on Oct. 10.

"It's crazy because that's what every running back should be working toward, to have an opportunity to get a large amount of carries and be that No. 1 guy going into every week," Rodgers said. "It's crazy, because, shoot, I was going from being cut to third string, to playing special teams and now being a starter. You go with the flow."

In two games, Rodgers went from the sofa to a player that — any way you couch it — gives the Bucs their best chance to win today at San Francisco. His 30-carry, 101-yard rushing performance on Monday Night Football is good reason for Tampa Bay to have confidence against a 49ers defense that allowed 313 yards rushing at Buffalo last week.

"I trust the guy a lot, I know I've seen him do it before," Koetter said. "Like I told you guys last week, he was a workhorse in college. … A wise coach told me a long time ago, 'Feed the stud. When the guy's hot, give him the ball.' "

At 5 feet 6, Rodgers has always been a far bigger talent than you may realize. He was Mr. Texas Football at Rosenberg Lamar Consolidated High School. He amassed 8,246 rushing yards and set a state high school record with 135 career touchdowns in four varsity seasons, leading his team to a 4A state championship. He was recruited by Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Oregon, Southern Cal, Houston, Baylor and Tennessee before joining his older brother James, a receiver, at Oregon State.

His greatest game, the one Koetter referenced, came against then-No. 1 USC when he rushed for 186 yards and two TDs.

"He was just an unbelievable player in college and very, very difficult to defend," said 49ers coach Chip Kelly, who battled Rodgers while coaching at Oregon. "I think he doesn't get enough credit for how physical he is just because he's not the biggest back in the world, so you automatically think that he's a nifty, nimble, make-you-miss type of guy.

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"He can do that, but he's also a very physical runner, very sturdy, has great balance, great vision."

Rodgers declared for the draft a year early and lasted until the fifth round, when the Falcons selected him 145th overall.

He backed up Michael Turner and Steven Jackson in Atlanta before signing a pair of one-year deals with the Bears. His 2015 season was wiped out when he suffered a broken arm.

"Man, the NFL is year to year," Rodgers said. "There's good people that are not playing right now, and you've just got to do what you have to do, you know, make plays, and when you get that opportunity, just take advantage of it."

That's what Rodgers hopes to do now. When he checked his phone after the Carolina game, Rodgers said he had more than 100 unread text messages, including one from a graduate assistant coach at Nebraska: his brother James.

That message was to the point. "Stay hungry dog. Don't let up now. Get that hundred."

Then Rodgers noticed the text from James arrived at halftime.

"I'm like, what are you doing?' Rodgers said. "I'm not looking at my phone."

Perhaps not, but for the Bucs, he's answering the call.