San Diego • As usual, Jake Doughty couldn’t talk about himself without making a joke.
A reporter asked him if he had watched the film of the fumble he had returned 86 yards for a touchdown against Fresno State. He had, but only once.
“I’m slow,” he said with a sheepish grin, prompting belts of laughter. “I didn’t realize I’m that slow. That was about the only thing that I got out of the film really.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando also watched the film. It told him many things about Utah State’s senior linebacker — his speed was perhaps the least important detail. He saw a player who had the instinct to scoop up a loose ball, signal to his blockers and run with single-minded focus.
“Most people in that situation panic,” Orlando said. “But his awareness is unbelievable.”
Asking about Doughty inevitably invites tales of his pranks and jokes — he’s a bit of a class clown, and his teammates adore him for it. When asked about the weather he’d see in San Diego — sunny with a high of 72 degrees — Doughty lodged tongue firmly in cheek, talking about the “adversity” the Aggies would face out of the below-freezing temperatures to which they’re accustomed.
But to stop at his self-depreciating surface is to sell him short. His teammates also talk reverently about their respect for him. It is not exaggeration to say Doughty is the most respected player among the Aggies. From a walk-on to a captain, his rise is the very identity Utah State seeks as a program.
“He epitomizes what it means to be an Aggie: Hard-working and comes to play every day,” said Zach Vigil, his fellow linebacker and best friend. “For the young guys to see how you’re supposed to work, in the weight room, on and off the field, he’s the guy to watch.”
Doughty was picked as a first-team all-conference player, and the obvious reason was he tackles everything with two legs. It is rare, nearly unthinkable, to see anyone running through his sure, square takedowns. His steady diet of 10.8 tackles per game ranks ninth in the nation.
A commonly used euphemism about Doughty is he “uses the tools that God gave him.” His listed height (6-foot) and weight (234 pounds) seem generous. His aforementioned foot speed won’t win track meets.
Doughty’s dimensions are one reason he couldn’t get a sniff from colleges after being an anchor on title-winning teams at Juan Diego High School. Gary Andersen had seen him play with his son and offered a walk-on spot to the undersized linebacker.
Although Doughty acknowledged he never thought he’d be an all-conference player, he also never thought of himself as someone who was just happy to be there.
“You just have to work harder, get more time in film and become a preparation junkie,” Doughty said. “A lot of guys are satisfied with just being on special teams and being a part of the program. As far as I’m concerned, I want to do my best and exceed expectations.”
Doughty does that by watching more tape than anyone else — except maybe Vigil, but only because they watch together. With a mind suited for studying engineering and earning all-academic honors three times, Doughty never lacked that particular tool.
His extensive study lends itself to an authoritative understanding of what’s happening on the field. He often will call his own audibles based on what he can see or he’ll simply gesture to where the run is coming.
Without him, Orlando said, the Aggies’ defense wouldn’t be ranked No. 10 against the run.
“He knows the ins and outs of every defense we have,” Orlando said. “He’s a special talent. His production is going to be missed here, and him as a human being, that’s going to be missed here.”
It also would sell Doughty short to airbrush his flaws. He got into legal trouble in two offseasons. First in 2012 for possession of a controlled substance, and earlier this year for providing alcohol to minors. Doughty was disciplined internally.
But in his handling of those off-field issues, Vigil said, Doughty reveals one of the strongest parts of his character: his humility. And while that trait sometimes can make his teammates laugh, it also manifests in serious times, when he can admit to a crowded locker room that he messed up.
“Jake overcame that like a man.” Vigil said. “He’s made some mistakes, like we all do, and he’s owned up to them. He’s a team captain again because everybody knows what Jake Doughty’s all about.”
Bowl officials presented Doughty with an award at the team luncheon Monday. His teammates had voted him most inspirational among them. It was to his complete surprise.
As is his fashion, Doughty took goofy pictures with the award, a football embossed with his name. He stumbled through a short, improvised speech, getting laughs instead of teary eyes.
The emotion was reserved for himself, releasing not long after he stepped away from the podium and was on his own. He looked down with bright eyes at the football, on which was written, “Wishes come true.”
“You want to be respected by your teammates and your coaches,” Doughty said. “That’s a true judge of character. It tells you about the kind of person you are rather than what you’re able to do athletically with what God gave you. It means a lot more to me. This award means more to me than anything I’ve ever gotten.”
Jake Doughty’s legacy
When he leaves Utah State, the senior linebacker will be remembered in the record books:
• 140 tackles in one season is seventh-best in program history.
• One of 15 USU players to record multiple 100-tackle seasons.
• One of 34 USU players to be two-time all-conference first team.
• A leader of top-10 scoring defenses in 2012 and 2013.
• A member of the all-time winningest Utah State class (30).
Utah State vs. No. Illinois
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.