KNOXVILLE — In less than a month, two contrasting portrayals have again emerged of Tennessee wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers.
The Calhoun, Ga., native stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a select group of teammates on Saturday. It was halftime of the Vols’ annual spring Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium. Rogers reached out and shook hands with coach Derek Dooley. The public address announcer declared him one of four Tennessee players to win the team’s Big Lick Award.
The honor is bestowed to players who “consistently compete with the most physical toughness.”
This was the same Da’Rick Rogers who lit off a firestorm of unrest at the beginning of spring practices. One minute, he hinted at intentions to transfer. The next minute, he was a Vol for life. One day, he was being disciplined with an undefined suspension. The next day, he was back on the practice field. One week, his dedication to his teammates and the program were up for question. Three weeks later, he was winning an award for hard work.
So which is it?
“He really had a great spring,” Dooley declared Saturday. “I’m proud of him.”
Rogers’ performance in the Vols’ scrimmage mirrored his divergent spring. He caught a 5-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage for the Tyler Bray-led White team. Two plays later, he whistled past cornerback Tyrin Fairman and pulled in a 51-yard pass down the sideline to set up an eventual touchdown.
That was the good.
The White team drove to the opposing 27-yard line on the first drive of the second quarter. On third-and-13, Bray found Rogers across the middle. The rising junior made the leaping catch, landed past the stakes, and promptly had the ball stripped by free safety Brian Randolph. Rogers walked off the field, head slung low, as the Orange offense took the field.
That was the bad.
Rogers finished with five catches for 74 yards. His White team fell to the Orange, 17-14, in a game few will remember a week from now. Rogers, who wasn’t made available to the media following the game, had just two catches for 14 yards in the Vols’ first two spring exhibitions. He and the coaching staff both brushed aside those numbers, saying he was focused on run blocking.
After Saturday’s game, Dooley noted Rogers’ biggest improvement in spring has been his “commitment in the run game and blocking.”
That’s only on the field, though.
Since he arrived in Knoxville, Rogers’ talent has been undeniable. It’s off the field where he manages to play spoiler to his own movie.
An arrest soon after arriving in Knoxville came before a freshman year that oozed with potential. A splendid sophomore year came before rampant rumors that he’d been suspended from the team in the offseason.
There’s been a flip-side to everything.
Even on the field.
Rogers’ 67 catches and 1,040 receiving yards led the SEC in 2011. Peel back the numbers, though, and you’ll see he grabbed 41 catches in the Vols’ five wins (8.2 catches per game) over Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU and Vanderbilt. In the team’s seven losses to Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky, meanwhile, he snagged a total of 26 passes, an average of 3.7 per game.
Yes, some of those games were against some of the premier defenses in the nation.
And yes, some of those games came with a backup quarterback and without fellow standout wide receiver Justin Hunter.
But if you’re going to be polarizing, you need to produce when it counts. And, more importantly, if you’re going to be a star, you need to be a leader. The next step—if you’re going to be a leader, you need to stay on-point.
Twenty-seven days after the Vols’ first spring practice and 132 days until the 2012 season opener against N.C. State, Dooley was adamant that the message is sinking in.
“He’s being a good team player, his attitude’s been great on the field, competing well, maybe chilling with his teammates,” Dooley said.
Spring practice is now over and much can happen between now and N.C. State. How Rogers treats this summer could determine his future standing with the Tennessee program.
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, considered by some to be the country’s No. 1 overall junior college prospect, is on his way to Knoxville. Patterson doesn’t make Rogers expendable, but he does make him nonessential as long as Justin Hunter’s knee is healthy.
While this spring has perfectly matched Rogers’ up-and-down career in Knoxville, the summer will have to be different.
Only one person can determine whether Da’Rick Rogers is the polarizing figure of March 27 or the hardworking, team player of April 21.
And it isn’t Derek Dooley.
“I hope he stays down (the right) path,” the coach said. “We need him to. Da’Rick has a lot of leadership qualities. He does. He’s got an ability to effect people. We need him to effect them the right way.”