Why Kentucky DL Justin Rogers could be next top NFL draft prospect from Detroit area

Detroit Free Press

Justin Rogers was mad at his mother for something too trivial to remember now.

He got in trouble for something one of his brothers did or wanted something she wouldn’t buy, so he decided, in the most earnest of ways, he was going to run away from home.

Rogers set off on the long walk from his house on the west side of Detroit to his grandmother’s at Fenkell and Wyoming, and not long after he arrived he got a surprise visit from the youth coach and trainer who would go on to be his mentor.

Daryl Graham had met Rogers for the first time a few days earlier. Rogers was playing middle school football for the West Seven Rams in the Police Athletic League and was the biggest kid on the field, but “didn’t know his right foot from his left foot.” Graham offered to work with him and help him develop as a player.

As Graham drove Rogers back to his house, thwarting his attempt, the two had a long talk and Graham asked Rogers what he wanted out of life.

“He said he wanted to be successful,” Graham recalled. “He said he wanted to play in the NFL, that was his thing. He wanted to play in the NFL and he wanted to be successful.”

Nearly 10 years later, Rogers is on that path — and a top candidate to be the first metro Detroit prep product off the board in next year’s NFL draft after a banner 2022 for local prospects.

Aidan Hutchinson (Dearborn Divine Child), the No. 2 pick by the Detroit Lions, became the highest homegrown player drafted since Eric Fisher went No. 1 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (Detroit King) gave metro Detroit two top-five picks for the first time in modern draft history.

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Rogers is not considered that caliber a prospect; he made the first four starts of his career last season in the middle of Kentucky’s defensive line. But neither were Hutchinson nor Gardner at this time last year.

“That’s my dream (to go in the first round),” Rogers told the Free Press over lunch last week. “But it’s not up to me. It’s up to my work.”

Ranked the No. 16 player in the country by Rivals.com coming out of Oak Park High, Rogers has slowly worked his way into the playing group in two seasons in Lexington.

He spent his freshman year playing behind 2021 draft picks Quinton Bohana and Phil Hoskins in the middle of the Wildcats’ defensive line, and saw rotational duty last fall behind another local product, Marquan McCall, at nose tackle.

Rogers finished last season with 16 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, had 1.5 sacks and led a memorable goal line stand late in the Wildcats’ midseason upset of Florida, after McCall went out with an injury.

This fall, he projects as a full-time starter on a Kentucky defensive line that also graduated Josh Paschal, a second-round pick by the Detroit Lions.

Rogers, who earned his first scholarship offer from Kentucky as an eighth-grader, said he wanted to play in the SEC in part to see how he stacked up against future NFL competition.

The experience was humbling at first, but something he wouldn’t change for the world.

“That first year was like a smack in the face,” Rogers said. “You put in all this work and they’re just not putting you in, they call on the older guys, it’s like, ‘Am I good enough?’ I had to question myself. I had doubts. I was talking to my girlfriend, talking to my mom, talking to my support system.

“They was like, ‘Just keep working, keep working, your time’s going to come.’ And I’m like, ‘When? When is it going to come?’ But I’m glad because you got to think about it, you got to go through the darkness to see the light. I’m happy I went through it because it made me who I am.”

Rogers arrived at Kentucky in the summer of 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, at 340 pounds. He’s since slimmed down to a more sculpted 319 pounds, and Graham, who now lives in Tennessee, said he’s seen the big defensive tackle refocus his priorities on football.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is when you get to that level, you have so much on your plate and you have so much to think about that sometimes your top goal and priority, it kind of fades and so you just need a reminder every now and again,” Graham said. “He has good days, he has bad, and they’ll call me and say, ‘Hey, he’s not focused.’ And my thing to him is, ‘Hey, man, you make some goals, you make some plans, let’s get back on track. Don’t forget what you said you’re going to do.’”

Rogers traveled to Tennessee for monthlong summer workout sessions with Graham before his junior and senior years of high school. He still makes the occasional three-hour drive south now and said he’s changed his eating and workout habits in recent months with the help of his longtime girlfriend, Jade Forest.

The couple take their 1-year-old American bulldog, Chewy, on frequent walks, have cut down on their intake of sweets and Forest was with Rogers at their Kentucky home during last month’s draft.

Rogers watched as Gardner, his former rival in little league — Gardner’s PAL team beat Rogers’ West Seven Rams at least once at Ford Field — went No. 4 overall to the New York Jets, and saw several other teammates and rivals, from Paschal to a slew of Georgia defenders he saw up close in the SEC (some of them one-year starters), go in the draft’s first few rounds.

That helped crystalize Rogers’ goals and how tantalizingly close he is to achieving them, even if he insists his current focus is helping Kentucky succeed on the field this fall.

“I’m not focusing on (the draft) this year,” Rogers said. “I’m focused on the season cause I want to prove everybody wrong. I was this big-time name and then you don’t want none of that stuff to go to waste, ’cause the biggest fear for me is coming back here and be like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have…’ I don’t want to wish. I want to do it.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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