KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee football fans know plenty about senior wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, and they have an insatiable appetite to learn just as much about highly touted freshmen Da’Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Matt Milton.
But when Jones broke a bone in his hand last weekend and was ruled out of Saturday’s game against 11th-ranked Oregon, none of those freshmen ascended to the top of the depth chart.
Zach Rogers did.
The brother of former UT receiver Austin Rogers, sophomore Zach has quietly gone about his business the past two years and prepared himself for this opportunity. And coaches and teammates expect him to thrive.
“I think Zach is one of the more underrated players we have,” first-year Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s had an excellent camp.”
Why so underrated? His personality, perhaps.
Dooley compared Rogers to the subject of “Ol’ Man River,” an old song about a man who “must know something but don’t say nothing.”
“He just kind of does his job, and he does it well,” Dooley said. “He’s not a flashy personality guy. He’s faster than people think, and he’s got good hands. He’s just a good, dependable player, and I think he’s going to get better and better.
“I have no issues with Zach.”
Those are strong words about a player with four catches for 26 yards in a 13-game career.
But Dooley isn’t alone.
“Zach’s an extremely hard worker,” said Austin Johnson, a junior middle linebacker who spent the past two seasons on offense at fullback. “He’s come out every day and worked really hard to keep making impressions on the coaching staff. He deserves every amount of playing time he’s going to get. It’s his time to step up, and he knows that, and he’s going to do it.
“And he’s going to do it with flying colors.”
Don’t expect Rogers to say anything like that about himself, though. He looks strikingly similar to brother Austin — minus the long hair and scraggly facial hair — and he’s every bit as soft-spoken.
“His hair’s been getting really long,” Johnson said. “We give him a hard time about it and always tell him to put it up in a ponytail or something like that, but he never wants to. He likes the fluffiness of it.”
So there is something colorful about Zach Rogers’ personality — his hair. Other than that, though, he’s essentially his older brother’s twin. And the younger Rogers is OK with that.
“Yeah, I’m similar to [Austin] a little bit,” he said. “I kind of like to be in the shadows. ... I kind of pick my spots. I’m not a very outgoing guy.
“I’ve tried to step up this year. I was a little quiet and intimidated coming around these guys last year, and not being sure what to do. But I’m trying to step out of it this year and be a leader for those young guys.”
And he doesn’t begrudge the three newcomers for all the attention they’ve received.
“The freshmen get a lot of hype, but it’s well-deserved,” Rogers said. “They did great things in high school, and they’re doing great things up here as well. I just keep coming to work regardless of who’s saying what. I can’t be worried about what other people say.
“I’ve just got to come out and be me.”
And that’s plenty good enough, according to several teammates.
“Zach Rogers doesn’t talk too much,” redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon said. “He’ll line up, score a touchdown on you and just walk back to the sideline.”
Gordon knows that firsthand. The fellow Nashville high school star once surrendered a winning touchdown to Rogers in a summer 7-on-7 league at Vanderbilt.
“That guy’s quick as ever,” Gordon said. “He’s one of the quickest receivers I’ve guarded, period, and I just feel like that he’ll step up in the position and fill the role. And he’ll fill the role well.
“I think he’s very underrated, but I feel like he’ll go prove a lot of people wrong on Saturday.”
Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson was asked to describe Rogers, and he said, “Speed.”
“If you can run, you can play, and that’s what he’s got — speed,” Jackson added. “He can run, and he’s going to make a move on defenders.”
The player Rogers is replacing was known for making defenders miss, too. But Rogers doesn’t want to try to be Gerald Jones on Saturday.
“I hate it for Gerald, and you can’t replace Gerald Jones,” Rogers said. “He was probably going to be an All-American this year. But you’ve just got to keep coming to work, no matter who’s out here.
“My nerves will be a little bit higher this week, but I’ve got to calm myself down and get back to the basics. Regardless of how many people [are there] or who’s starting or whatever, I’ve got to come to play on Saturday.”
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