KNOXVILLE — The reality was staring Da'Rick Rogers square in the face.
The University of Tennessee receiver realized then, in the middle of spring practice more than four months ago, that reliable senior receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones and tight end Luke Stocker were gone and left a heap of responsibility on Rogers' broad shoulders.
“The pressure of saying you have to replace G-Jones and D-Mo and Luke Stocker,” the former Calhoun High star said last week, “that alone is just, ‘OK, we've got to get in gear and we've really got to perform this year, so we've got to work as hard as we can as many days as we can to get where we need to be.’”
For Rogers, the talented sophomore expected to be a primary target for quarterback Tyler Bray this fall, the maturation process began, he said, during last October's loss at South Carolina and flourished during spring practice. Through little things like sitting in the front of the Volunteers' special-teams meeting, the process has created results.
“Compared to the spring,” Rogers said, “I feel like a whole new person almost. As a human, as a person, I've matured a lot. I've buckled down with school and just life in general. Like [UT] coach [Derek] Dooley said, the attitude outside shows a lot in here, so when I have a good attitude out there and things are clicking, I roll in here and it's just I'm playing football.”
UT receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who coached a handful of NFL receivers during a 11-year coaching career, also has seen Rogers mature.
“I think he's come as far as anybody I've ever had in one year because he had to learn a lot a year ago,” he said. “He was thrown into a situation where he had to be the guy to go in there and play, and coming out of high school, it was kind of tough for him. I'm very pleased with the way's he come along. It's like night and day.
“You never know how these young kids will do. They get in here and see everything, the big crowds, the fanatical fans, everything they have here at Tennessee. You never know how they're going to react, but Da'Rick has come a long way.”
Rogers said he's felt an increased sense of urgency this offseason heading into the Vols' preseason camp, and his knowledge of the system, route-running and connection with Bray have improved dramatically. The long hours of grueling offseason workouts and 7-on-7 work with the offense has paid dividends.
“Da'Rick has had an exceptional summer,” Dooley said. “When he gets out there and is running routes, his biggest challenge was his stamina, being able to run like a gazelle over and over and over. He makes plays every day, he's very talented, we need him to be a big-time player for us and he has that capability.”
Rogers arrived on campus as a five-star recruit last August, but with Moore and Jones entrenched ahead of him and Justin Hunter soaking up much of the freshman spotlight with seven touchdown catches, Rogers had more rushes (16), mostly on end-arounds, and kickoff returns (12) than receptions (11). His role and the pressure will be much greater this season.
“I tell my guys all the time, as go the receivers so goes the offense,” Baggett said. “I put that pressure on them for them to understand that if we don't get the ball to them and they don't catch the football, we're not going to be very successful.”
Well aware of his expectations, Rogers has responded accordingly.
“It's not just getting serious and making it a business about [me and Hunter], we've got to get serious and make it a business about the rest of our team as well,” he said. “Everybody wants to try and go to that next level, so I feel like as a team, us young guys, we're not giving our seniors our all if we're not buckling down and getting serious.
“I trained as hard as I could have getting ready for this year. I know I have a big role to step up to.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...