David Woodward and his nose for the ball anchoring Utah State football’s defense

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Woodward gets ready for the start of preseason camp for USU football on Wed. July 31, 2019.

Logan • Midway through the first quarter of Utah State’s season-opening loss to Wake Forest, linebacker David Woodward stripped the ball from the Demon Deacons quarterback and ran it 11 yards for an apparent touchdown. It would have been the first time in his Aggies career that a pass-rush sequence resulted in a touchdown.

But the score was called back due to a holding penalty. Woodward’s strip-sack-to-touchdown highlight would have to wait. But the play was merely a preview of things to come. The junior linebacker recorded a career-high 24 tackles in a contest where he wasn’t even in complete game shape after missing some fall practices due to a concussion.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a guy that is around the ball so much,” linebackers coach Justin Ena told The Salt Lake Tribune. “He’s almost like a magnet to the football.”

Woodward, whom Pro Football Focus named first team All-America and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, is practically a career linebacker, playing there from first through eighth grade. At Olympia (Wash.) High School, he moved to safety, and returned to linebacker only when he started at Utah State.

Woodward said shifting back to linebacker felt “a little weird at first.”

“It took a little bit to get back in the feel of it,” Woodward said. “But after a while it felt natural.”

That nose for the ball is something that Ena believes comes mainly though instinct, but it’s buttressed by Woodward’s work ethic. Ena said Woodward constantly watches film on his opponents, studying the tendencies of offensive linemen. In addition, Woodward makes sure he’s healthy and in shape by spending time in the weight room, Ena said.

That attention to his body could be the reason Woodward performed so well against Wake Forest despite practicing only the week of the game. He said he put in some extra running after those practices in order to feel the best he possibly could for the game.

It worked, mostly. Woodward said he was “feeling it a little bit” after the Aggies put together long drives and anticipates that more extra work will be needed.

“I’m probably going to have to do that for the first couple weeks,” Woodward told reporters Monday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Woodward gets ready for the start of preseason camp for USU football on Wed. July 31, 2019.

A few of Woodward’s teammates mentioned the amount of trust they have in him to make plays. Fellow linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer, a junior out of Moreno Valley, Calif., said playing with Woodward makes him feel “super comfortable.”

“If one play, we didn’t get to communicate to each other what was about to happen, I know that he knew what he was doing [and] I know what I was doing,” Meitzenheimer said. “Just having him around the field covering guys’ butts is great. He’s a great player.”

Junior quarterback and Heisman candidate Jordan Love said Woodward is fun to watch from the sideline and described him as “really dedicated.”

“He’s a dog,” Love said of Woodward, complimenting him. “I know he’s going to go out there and just make plays every time he’s on the field. I got a lot of trust in Woody out there.”

Woodward had tallied 20 or more tackles just once before in his career — last November against Colorado State. When he saw the stat sheet after the Wake Forest game, he was a bit surprised.

“I knew I had a lot and I knew that Kevin [Meitzenheimer] probably had a lot too because we were both everywhere on the field,” Woodward said. “But I didn’t think it was 24.”

And Woodward wasn’t even at full strength.

“If he wasn’t 100 [percent], then I can’t wait to get a 30-tackle game, too,” Ena said with a chuckle. “He’s putting a lot of stuff out there.”

Ena did say amassing 30 tackles in one game is a difficult feat, but didn’t completely dismiss the notion when asked if such a performance was in Woodward’s near future.

“I thought 24 was really, really high,” Ena said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

For all that Woodward already brings to the field for the Aggies, perhaps no one described the linebacker better than senior running back Gerold Bright.

“I mean,” Bright chuckled, “it’s David Woodward — All-American linebacker.”