At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, and possessing the speed to cover 40 yards in 4.4 seconds, Roderick Rogers has the makings of a prototype free safety.
Athletic ability and potential will only take a player so far, however. And Rogers, a junior on the University of Wisconsin football team, has gone through growing pains in his first season as a starter.
“He has the height. He definitely has the speed,” defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. “The only thing he was lacking was experience. And he’s gaining that each game.”
Each game, a new opportunity. Each repetition, a new lesson to learn.
Rogers has been a devoted student. His strong performance in the Badgers’ 31-20 win over Purdue last week is a case in point.
With less than five minutes left in the third quarter, Purdue led 13-10 with the ball at the UW 38. Four plays earlier, Rogers and corner Brett Bell were beat on a deep pass that should have been a Purdue touchdown, but fell incomplete. On second-and-eight, the Boilers challenged Rogers again:
Rogers lined up at the UW 25, 13 yards downfield from receiver Dorien Bryant. On the snap, Bryant sprinted to the 30 and made a hard cut toward the sideline.
Rogers took a few strides in his backpedal toward the boundary but did not bite on Bryant’s bluff. At the 25, Bryant abruptly cut back toward the middle of the field, executing a good corner-post.
But Rogers was sitting on the route. He intercepted Curtis Painter’s pass at the 16 and returned it for an 84-yard touchdown, reversing the course of the game.
In several hours watching film, Rogers had seen Purdue run that play many, many times and UW’s defensive coaches had discussed it in meetings. So when the Boilers turned to that page in the playbook, Rogers was waiting. He did not hesitate for a moment despite the fact that if he misplayed the pass, it would have been a touchdown for Purdue.
“When the ball was in the air, you’ve got to play the ball,” Rogers said. “You never go wrong when you are playing the ball.”
“I’d say he’s becoming more of a student of the game,” Lee said. “He’s understanding what the opponent’s going to try to do before they do it.”
Rogers is one of a handful of Badger defensive backs who came into this season with minimal experience and earned a spot on the field. The Stone Mountain, Ga. native has started every game, is tied for the UW lead with three interceptions and is sixth on the team with 30 tackles.
As No. 15 Wisconsin (7-1 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) enters the stretch drive of the conference season, Rogers still has plenty of room to grow. But the player that will take the field at Illinois (2-5, 0-4) Saturday is quite different from the one who struggled through his first start in the season opener.
The most glaring example versus Bowling Green came on Steve Sanders’ 63-yard touchdown reception, which included 44 yards after the catch. Rogers allowed Sanders to catch the ball with about four yards of cushion. Corner Jack Ikegwuonu then inadvertently impeded Rogers’ path to the ball carrier, allowing Sanders to run free. Rogers was also called for two interference penalties during another BGSU touchdown drive.
“The first game, all the jitters and things are out,” Rogers said. “So I just go throughout the season and get more comfortable knowing the things that you can do when you go out and play.”
Rogers has steadily improved since that September day.
When asked about Rogers’ progress defensive coordinator Bret Bielema often invokes a play that occurred in week four against Michigan. The Badgers were caught in a zone blitz, with defensive end Joe Monty trapped covering tailback Max Martin down the left sideline.
What could have been a big play for the Wolverines was erased when Rogers ran to the boundary and nearly intercepted the pass as he flattened Martin.
“He made a nice play over the top — what a true free safety is supposed to do,” Bielema said. “That had kind of parlayed into the next week and to the week after that.”
Said Rogers: “I’ve been working on trying to believe in what I see and trying to attack more when it’s time to attack.”
He attacked with aplomb last week, three times recording pass breakups when he drilled Purdue receivers that ventured over the middle. And he played through pain, suffering a shoulder “stinger” during the game. He was hurting when he made his dramatic interception return, and his right arm hung limply at his side after he jarred a pass loose in the fourth quarter.
Following practice Wednesday, Rogers said his shoulder was responding well to rehab. He certainly does not expect to miss a snap.
“Rehab is always important. You are going to have bumps and bruises and nicks and things like that,” Rogers said. “But you got to rehab to get them better. You can’t sit down just because of an injury.”
Rogers still views himself as a work in progress. Four plays before his game-changing interception, Rogers was slow to react on a deep pass to Brian Hare. Had Hare come up with the ball, it would have been a touchdown. Rogers made up for that mistake in a big way, but the play still irks him.
“Maybe if I had looked a little bit quicker or maybe (was) reading the quarterback’s eyes a little bit more, I would have been on top of that,” he said.
Rogers also dropped an interception on Purdue’s second-to-last drive. It is a play that resonates with Rogers and his coaches.
“He’s gotten his hands on some balls before, and he still dropped one on Saturday so we got to correct that point,” Bielema said. “But he pulled the pin, reacted and made some nice collisions on some vertical routes over the middle, which is really nice to see.”
Physically, Rogers can be the archetype for a free safety. But he has a different notion of what is ideal for his position.
“Ideal safety… is anybody who works hard and plays hard,” he said. Those traits are in Rogers’ repertoire too. Now, he has the experiences to build from.
“You got to keep playing, keep going, keep trying to get better, telling yourself, ‘I still have work to do,’” Rogers said. “…You got to get better every week. Take criticism. Study yourself hard. Critique yourself hard. Play hard.”
Rogers is proving to be a quick study.