By LARRY VAUGHT
Just when you think it can’t get any better for Kentucky football, it does.
This time it was a commitment from top 10 national lineman Justin Rogers of Michigan to the Wildcats Monday. He could have picked Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU or Michigan. Instead, he went with the first school to offer him a scholarship when he was only an eighth-grader.
He made his announcement at Oak Park High School and one of the first to congratulate him was former Oak Park teammate Marquan McCall, a freshman defensive lineman at Kentucky.
“Marquan is my brother, he’s family. It was like when he got down there, the school became my family. It feels natural. Coach (Mark) Stoops has the Kentucky program on the rise. I want to be part of the turnaround,” Rogers told media members after his announcement.
The turnaround is certainly going full speed. Just consider:
— Kentucky won 10 games last season.
— Kentucky beat Penn State in the New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl.
— Josh Allen was named the consensus national defensive player of the year.
— Kentucky had a player picked in each of the first four rounds of the NFL draft, a first for the program. Allen was the No. 7 overall pick.
— Kentucky got commitments this month from in-state stars John Young of Louisville Christian Academy and Beau Allen of Lexington Catholic.
Now the momentum just got another jolt when the verbal commitment of 6-3, 295-pound Rogers, who had about 50 Division I scholarship offers. He’s the No. 10 prospect nationally in the Rivals.com 2020 recruiting ranking based on his play on the offensive line. ESPN has him as the nation’s No. 9 defensive tackle and 91st player overall. 247Sports has had Rogers as the nation’s 44th best recruit.
Obviously, it’s still about seven months until national signing day in December and top players flip verbal commitments annually – remember Western Hills’ Wandale Robinson flipping from UK to Nebraska last year. However, Rogers certainly seems all-in with Kentucky and the connections he has there.
“It offers a lot of credibility to the coaching staff on the recruiting trail,” 247Sports recruiting writer Josh Edwards said about Rogers’ commitment. “When a player that could have gone anywhere chooses to play out of state for a program, others take notice.
“Since Rogers’ announcement, there has been a lot of social media interaction from Kentucky targets like Enzo Jennings, Earnest Sanders and others. It is a smaller class expected this year so it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff handles the numbers.”
Edwards knows Kentucky’s 10-win season is resonating with recruits and Rogers’ commitment shows a whole new national level of respect for Stoops and his program.
“Rogers’ relationship with Marquan McCall can not be understated in his recruitment. It was not long ago that legacy recruits like Zack Martin, Russ Yeast, Nick Martin and Zeke Correll were committing to other programs,” Edwards said. “The aesthetic of landing a Michigan recruit over Michigan and Michigan State builds respectability.”
It also continues the pipeline Kentucky is building in Michigan. Not only did UK sign McCall in its 2018 recruiting class but it also got linebacker DeAndre Square to sign. Both Square and McCall have a chance to be starters this season. Rogers has two four-star teammates — receiver Maliq Carr and cornerback Enzo Jennings — who have not committed to any school but Jennings now has an official visit scheduled to UK (so does top 150 defensive end Samuel Anaele of Miami now). Oak Park sophomore offensive lineman Rayshaun Benny is one of the top recruits in the 2021 class. Last season’s quarterback, Dwan Mathis, is now at Georgia.
Rogers played defense for the first time in 2018 and had 66 tackles and six sacks from his linebacker spot while also starting on offense. He’s indicated he would prefer to play defense in college, the same decision McCall made and one that UK has been on board with for Rogers.
“Justin does a lot of really exciting things on the football field,” Oak Park head coach Greg Carter, who played baseball at Kentucky State in the 1970’s, said. “His ability to be focused on game day, to compete at a high level, is unmatched. Justin is an outstanding individual and player. We are blessed to have him as part of our program. We know that bigger and better things are ahead for him. We are just going to enjoy him this upcoming season.”
Oak Park High School principal Carissa Peterson praised Rogers in-school demeanor. She said he was a leader without being “loud or showy” on a daily basis.
“He just goes about his business and works very hard for what he wants,” Peterson said. “Talent doesn’t get you everything. He worked hard and treats people the way he wants to be treated. He m mentors younger players. It’s easy to advocate for Justin because he does the right things.”