Mark Wiedmer: Are Vols gaining by Rogers' loss?

Mark Wiedmer: Are Vols gaining by Rogers' loss?

August 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Da'Rick Rogers is seen in this file photo.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

The caller to a Knoxville sports talk show Thursday afternoon wanted to change his prediction for the 2012 University of Tennessee football Volunteers.

"Before this Da'Rick Rogers mess I had 'em going 8-4," he said. "Now I think they'll go 9-3."

Drum roll, please.

To be fair, this guy was in the minority as I traveled north on Interstate 75 to watch former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman and his Green Bay Packers take on former UTC teammate Chris Lewis-Harris and the rest of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Most Volniacs reacted to UT coach Derek Dooley's news that Rogers was indefinitely suspended with various degrees of anger and concern.

Some worried that the Vols might win no more than five games without their most decorated returning player. Others criticized Dooley for putting up with Rogers' antics as long as he did. Still others praised the coach for cutting him loose, even as no one at the time seemed to know exactly what the Calhoun, Ga., residen had done.

Had he gone berserk on a coach? Had he failed a drug test? Had he broken curfew? Had he gotten in a fight with a teammate?

All of those seemed possible. None of those seemed certain. Later in the day, ESPN began reporting that Rogers had run afoul of UT's substance-abuse protocol. The Vols brass is yet to confirm anything.

But if ESPN is correct, you would assume that Rogers is probably done, since only the third and final strike in UT's drug policy would deliver anything approaching an indefinite suspension.

Especially after Dooley stated: "Our expectation is he's not [returning]."

And what a waste that is. The guy's 6-3 and at least 210 pounds, no matter what the media guide says. He's Terrell Owens with better hands, but possibly more baggage, though that rarely scares away NFL talent scouts until the hands or legs begin to fail.

"It is disappointing, but I'm sure he'll land on his feet," Hal Lamb, Rogers' coach at Calhoun, told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "He's not a bad kid. ... He just gets caught up in situations he can't get out of. But I'm here for him. That's what high school coaches are for."

But can the Vols get out of this? Is this addition by subtraction? Can UT really go 9-3, or better, without its All-SEC receiver, who led college football's top conference with 67 catches, 1,040 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last autumn?

Or do Vanderbilt and Kentucky now become the biggest games on the schedule, the Vols needing to win those final two league contests to avoid a third straight losing season?

The answers will begin arriving a week from tonight inside the Georgia Dome when the Vols face North Carolina State. Let UT wideout Justin Hunter again be healthy following last year's knee surgery; let juco transfer receiver Cordarrelle Patterson be as good as advertised -- which has been something resembling the melding of Jerry Rice and the latest bit of Apple's technological wizardry -- and Big Orange fans might exit the Dome wearing buttons proclaiming "Da'Who?".

But let's say the UT offense appears to become very afraid of the big, bad Wolf(pack) defense in Rogers' absence. Let's say Patterson zigs when he should zag. Let's say Hunter takes longer than a quarter to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity. Let's say that without Da'Rick around to form a three-headed receiving monster, the two remaining threats aren't scary enough to open the running game.

Then what? Will the majority of Volniacs still support Dooley, assuming this was really the coach's decision and not an unbreakable athletic department policy?

And if they don't, what does that say about the fan base? That it wants discipline unless that discipline costs the team games, which, to be honest, is pretty much what every fan base not answering to the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy or West Point wants.

There's also this lesson for UT's Clorox Orange recruiting nuts, as well as every other SEC powerhouse fan base who's decided national signing day should be a paid holiday:

The Vols' three highest ranked recruits in the last four years have been running back Bryce Brown, defensive back Jantzen Jackson and Rogers.

Talk about three strikes and you're out.

You can't half-blame Dooley for attempting to hold onto Rogers through everything from a 2010 bar fight to last year's supposed unraveling inside the UT locker room following the Kentucky loss, to the player's electronic musings that he was leaving UT for Georgia State last spring, to this.

To borrow a line from retired Florida State coaching legend Bobby Bowden after one of his best players had run afoul of the law: "I just hate to lose the talent."

So just as Georgia coach Mark Richt fought so long for running back Isaiah Crowell, just as LSU coach Les Miles is still fighting to give Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu a back door to return next year, Dooley knew that not having Rogers could shorten the odds the coach himself might not be around this time next year.

Then again, as UT linebacker Herman Lathers told this newspaper on Thursday: "We've learned to cope and play without [Rogers]."

As has Richt, who was the coach Rogers told everyone he was going to play for until the day he signed with the Vols. Here's guessing that sometime Thursday, if not long before, Rogers became one troubled talent that Boss Dawg was only too happy to have lost.