With a mass of players standing on the sideline in shorts and t-shirts during Tuesday’s practice, there is absolutely no denying that USC has been rocked by the injury bug as of late. And on this day, with the Trojans preparing to take on Utah this Saturday in the Coliseum, perhaps no group appeared to be feeling the pinch more than Tee Martin’s wide receiver corps.
With Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and De’Von Flournoy all sidelined due to injuries, and George Farmer and Steven Mitchell both declared out for the year long ago, offensive coordinator Clay Helton had just two scholarship wide outs at his disposal. But when Victor Blackwell hobbled off midway through the two-hour session, that number turned into one -- Darreus Rogers.
A 6-foot-2 and 210-pound freshman who arrived at USC last spring, he’s now in position to potentially play a huge role in this weekend’s game as the most healthy and capable pass-catcher available. And coming off a breakout six-catch, 60-yard outing in the team’s 14-10 loss to Notre Dame, it’s a task he appears to be up for.
“He played really, really well,” said Ed Orgeron of Rogers. “We’re so proud of that young man. Tee was really impressed with his performance.”
What made Rogers’ showing particularly remarkable was the fact that it was his first game back in action in over a month. He went down with a high-ankle sprain back on Sept. 14 in the Trojans’ victory over Boston College and returned to practice full-time just last week.
But you wouldn’t have known it by the way he played.
“It was very hard,” Rogers said of his time away. “I just kept mentally focused and ready in the training room so I could get back out here as soon as possible. I came back earlier than I expected, and I think that was because I worked hard and did all of the extras in the training room, iced my ankle each and every day, and when I came back out here and ran on it, it felt good.”
Rogers’ hard work obviously paid off, but it’s not as if his performance against the Fighting Irish came out of nowhere. A prolific game-breaker on the high school level at Carson (Calif.) who caught 64 passes for 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season in 2011, he made a big impression at USC this past August, winning a highly-publicized position battle to emerge as the team’s No. 3 receiver behind Lee and Agholor.
“I knew it was something that I could do,” Rogers said of the numbers he put up against Notre Dame. “It was just about me getting the opportunity, and I got it. That’s what all of the coaches always say, ‘when the opportunity comes, take it.’ I always keep that in mind, so every time the ball comes my way, I’m trying to catch it and show what I can do.”
Now feeling “back to 100 percent,” Rogers’ determined mindset was apparent on Tuesday when, showing a level of maturity beyond his years, he looked more like a veteran than a first-year performer, as he led a wide receiver group filled with walk-ons like Robby Kolanz, Christian Tober and George Katrib through their paces.
“I’m focused on just coming in and stepping up, and I’m pushing the other guys,” Rogers said. “They’re working hard as if they had a scholarship too, so I’m just coming in here and being a leader early.”
And Rogers’ growth is good news for a USC offense that may, or may not, have options like Lee and Agholor available this Saturday. And whether he’s ultimately asked to be the go-to receiver against the Utes, or to play a supporting role, he’s prepared to take the next step in his development.
“I’m ready for whatever opportunity comes my way,” Rogers said. “Whether it’s a big role or small role, I’m going to take advantage of it. I can’t wait to get out there.”