KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's receiving corps features potential first-round draft picks Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, but a lesser-known player arguably has emerged as the Volunteers' most reliable pass catcher.
Zach Rogers matched a school single-game record Saturday by catching three touchdown passes in a 38-35 loss at South Carolina. That performance continued a remarkable season for Rogers, a senior who had reached the end zone just twice his entire career before this fall.
"It's my last time around here," Rogers said. "You can't leave anything behind."
The Volunteers host Troy on Saturday.
In his senior season, Rogers already is approaching or has surpassed his previous career totals in every major category. Rogers has caught 23 passes for 391 yards and five touchdowns this season. In his first three years at Tennessee, he had totaled 31 receptions for 415 yards and two touchdowns.
Rogers caught six passes for a career-high 107 yards against South Carolina and made one of the best catches of Tennessee's season for his third touchdown, as he grabbed the ball at the sideline and somehow dragged his right foot inbounds before his left foot landed out of bounds.
Rogers leads the team in touchdown catches, an impressive accomplishment considering the star power of Tennessee's receiving corps. Hunter has more catches (47) and receiving yards (457) than Rogers. Patterson's ability to make big plays as a kick returner or ball carrier makes him a much more electrifying and complete performer. Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com, rates Hunter and Patterson as first- or second-round picks if the juniors enter next year's draft.
But in terms of pure pass-catching and route-running ability, Rogers has been as good as anyone on the team.
"He runs great routes," junior quarterback Tyler Bray said. "You know where he's going to be at all times. He runs every route the same every time, he doesn't switch it up ever. He's just consistent."
That ability could allow Rogers to extend his playing career.
Rogers wasn't even on the radar of most NFL scouts heading into his senior year, but he has played his way into consideration. Rang considers Rogers a potential late-round draft pick who could succeed in the NFL because of his refined skills.
"He's a very good route runner," Rang said. "He catches the ball cleanly. He looks like a natural pass catcher. What I mean by that is some receivers catch the ball but they almost fight the ball in. He looks the ball all the way in, secures it quickly, adjusts the ball to whatever side's away from the defender and toward the sideline. Those are all things that for a lot of players, it usually takes years to develop those kinds of instincts. It seems to come fairly natural to him. While he's not an elite athlete, he's a very good football player."
Dooley credited Rogers' consistency in his practice habits.
"It's so important, when you have a good throwing game, that the receivers are running as fast as they can all the time," Dooley said. "That allows the quarterback to have a rhythm to where he can place the ball. Zach has the greatest consistency of all in how he practices. It reminds me of how Wes Welker was when I was (with) the Dolphins. He practiced so fast that the quarterback knew exactly where he was going to be on all these routes."
Rogers appreciates the comparison to Welker, who played for the Dolphins from 2004-06 before achieving stardom with the New England Patriots. Rogers often looks at film of other slot receivers to get tips on how they beat defenses and find soft spots in coverages. He follows Welker with particular enthusiasm.
"He's a guy I like to model my game after, so that's the highest compliment I can get right now," Rogers said.
But it isn't just his study habits that have made Rogers more effective this season. Rogers also has the sense of urgency that a player often develops in his senior year once he realizes he's approaching the end of his football life.
"It's definitely entered my mind," Rogers said. "I've got four games left here, probably five with the bowl game. It's dwindling down here. I realize that. I'm just trying to give it all I've got."
Of course, if he keeps performing this well, his playing career could continue well beyond this season.