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Robert Rochell went from high school recruit with 0 stars to Rams top rookie in Week 1

LA has a special rookie on their defense

NFL: Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Rochell had one scholarship offer from an FBS school coming out of high school in 2016. It was from Central Arkansas, and he took that opportunity and ran with it all the way towards making his NFL debut on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. A fourth round pick of the LA Rams a few months ago, the rookie Rochell played in 27 snaps on Sunday, more than any other rookie on the team, and helped end Chicago’s fourth quarter comeback big with a pass deflection.

What more can we expect from the recruit who went from a highly-intriguing high school junior with a 4.37 40-yard dash to a no-star signing at a mid-major and is now one of just four cornerbacks on LA’s roster?

Robert Rochell’s pre-college life and career

History will show that Rochell had no stars and only one offer coming out of high school in 2016, but as usually the case with such exceptions that go onto the NFL, there were some extenuating circumstances.

As a gifted track athlete and football player, many schools weren’t sure what to think of Rochell when ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at an LSU camp in 2015. As a junior at Fair Park High School — which is now a middle school after many years of poor marks for academics — Rochell stood out because of his speed but he needed a strong senior campaign to seal offers from the big programs.

Or most any program, it turns out.

Rochell suffered a knee injury part way through his senior season and despite his blazing speed and having well over 1,300 yards from scrimmage at the time he was hurt, the only school that stayed by him was Central Arkansas. Known to play as many as seven positions at Fair Park, Rochell was excited for the opportunity to continue his football career with UCA:

“They feel like that’s my strong point so I’m just going to roll with it,” said Rochell, who ran an unofficial 4.37 40-yard-dash last summer at LSU. “I love the atmosphere and the fans. When I went down, it was just so welcoming.”

Understandably so, for many obvious reasons, but also because it kept the door open for Rochell to escape a life that had multiple life-altering tragedies up to that point.

Rochell’s hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana is rated in the 14th percentile for safety and violent crimes are a relatively regular occurrence. That reality hit close to home when Rochell’s father, who had been released from prison only days earlier, was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2009.

“I was waiting my whole childhood to play sports in front of my dad,” Robert said. “Just for someone to stop those chances and alter that, it was definitely mind-boggling. I had to transition and strengthen myself. It made me a man.”

That’s not the only important person in Robert’s life taken too soon. He lost two uncles and cousins, as well, and admits to battling depression.

“It’s because of all the losses that he had,” said LaBrinta Rochell, Robert’s mom.

Rochell’s mother LaBrinta watched him delve deeper into his commitment to sports and eventually that hard work looked like it could pay off in the form of being an Olympic sprinter, but when Robert became interested in football, all bets were off and the new goal was to make it into the NFL.

Regardless of where Rochell had to stop in between a since-closed high school and the Los Angeles Rams.

“Once he got the [UCA offer], I told him, ‘What did I tell you?’ “ Monique Rochell recalled. “‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re at LSU or Alabama, in Miami, in Hawaii playing — if it’s meant for you to go to the NFL, they’re coming to the University of Central Arkansas to get you.’”

She’s a smart role model.

The thing I’ve told Robert his whole life is that as long as I see him giving 100 [percent], I’m giving 100,” Monique said. “I always have told him that every time we pull up to a practice or a game or anything, if you’re not here doing 100, we just need to go back home.”

College life

Unsure of what position he was best suited for coming out of high school, Central Arkansas pictured him as a cornerback and he redshirted during his first season in 2016.

Then in 2017, Rochell appeared in 11 games and made three starts, finishing with one interception, six passes defensed, and a forced fumble — just two years after he was primarily seen as an offensive weapon and was still learning to play cornerback.

By 2018, the redshirt sophomore was a full-time starter and he led Central Arkansas with four interceptions that season. Rochell had now put himself into the conversation as one of the top defensive players in the nation at the FCS level going into his junior year.

He didn’t disappoint.

In his third season as a starter on UCA’s defense, Rochell posted five interceptions and 18 passes defensed, eventually being named as a first team All-American for his efforts.

Perhaps one thing about going to Central Arkansas that did hold Rochell back is that he wasn’t quite going to be the first round draft prospect that he might have been had he gotten a scholarship from Alabama or Ohio State instead of UCA. So Rochell returned to school in 2020, only to find out that it would be a pandemic-shortened seven-game season for his conference.

And yet, Rochell still put a game on tape that I’m sure he won’t forget. The Rams probably won’t either.

Though North Dakota State had their season canceled in 2020, quarterback prospect Trey Lance was too good to keep off of the field for a whole year, so they set up a single game against Central Arkansas. Rochell had no interceptions as a senior in 2020, but he did end up with two batted passes against Lance.

Though a Rochell personal foul did lead to the go-ahead touchdown for Lance late in the game, he was able to put himself on TV in front of millions despite playing at UCA during such an unusual season, and he was able to put on display the same playmaking abilities that we saw on Sunday night against the Bears.

Pre-draft life

These days, it’s hard to go completely unnoticed by the NFL if you have talent, even if you’re not at a Power 5 school or even at the FBS level. With Twitter, YouTube, and a whole mess of home computer scouts who want to show that “I found the gem first!” (no judgment, this is what I’ve been doing with Grayson McCall since March), a player at the Division-II level won’t go unnoticed if he’s exceptionally gifted compared to his peers.

Especially not if you make it onto a list for “athletic freaks.”

Despite not having a great showing during Senior Bowl week, it’s no less an area for teams and scouts to become familiar with your work. What Rochell wanted to show off, above all else, was his unique athletic abilities and we also know that Rams GM Les Snead likes at least three things in a draft prospect:

  • Ridiculous speed
  • Standing out at the Senior Bowl
  • Not being an offensive lineman

And I guess “long injury history” could be a fourth.

There was at least no question about Rochell’s speed, or his other unique athletic abilities. At least, not by the time we got to his insane pro day.

Officially listed just under 6’ and just over 190 lbs, Rochell’s 4.39 40-yard dash would have tied, among a few other players, Jacob Harris as the 11th-fastest at the “2021 combine” that didn’t quite exist.

More importantly, he matched athletic traits with cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Greg Newsome, both first round picks:

Rochell: 5’11, 193, 4.39, 43” vertical, 11’1 broad, 6.83 three-cone

Horn: 6’, 205 lbs, 4.39, 41.5” vertical, 11’1 broad, no three-cone

Newsome: 6’, 192 lbs, 4.39, 40” vertical, 10’3 broad, 6.9 three-cone

Above all that, Rochell’s 32.5” arms put him rare company as a corner who is nearly 6’ and runs a sub-4.4 40-yard dash.

Since the year 2000, the only cornerback known to have a sub-4.4 with a vertical over 42” and a broad jump over 11’ and weighing at least 185 lbs is Marco Wilson, himself a fourth round pick in 2021 out of Florida.

Him and Robert Rochell.

Post-Draft life

The Rams were clearly enamored with what they saw in Rochell, drafting him 130th overall in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Though there were not “a bunch” of times that I can recall Rochell standing out in training camp or preseason, there was the matter of being buried behind the game’s best cornerback and a top-rated number two next to Jalen Ramsey. With David Long, Jr. going into year three and Rochell still catching up to NFL game speed, it’s not surprising or concerning that the rookie didn’t appear to win a job as LA’s number three cornerback.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t do that very soon.

In his first game as an NFL player, Rochell played in 27 defensive snaps, which is 25 more offensive/defensive snaps than every other Rams rookie combined in Week 1.

Long played in 39 snaps.

With no other cornerbacks on the roster other than those four, Rochell should continue to see heavy action on the defense and perhaps could only see his playing time ramp up now that he’s upgraded from the one program that always believed in him to a professional defense that actually really needs him right now.

Well, ramping up to speed is something that has never been a problem for Rochell before.

And let’s hear it one more time for moms.