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- Played college football at Cheyney University
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When most kids visit Los Angeles, they’re thinking about Hollywood, beaches and maybe a visit to Disneyland. But as a high school wide receiver from Knoxville, Tennessee, Amari Rodgers was focused on something else: working with his famous dad.
Rodgers’ father is Tee Martin, who quarterbacked the University of Tennessee to a national championship in 1998. Martin also spent four seasons as an NFL quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders before getting into coaching.
Rodgers wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to run routes and catch passes from his dad, who was the wide receivers coach at USC at the time.
Rodgers developed into a top playmaker for Clemson and is now a top prospect in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1, ESPN). But it wouldn’t have played out that way if his dad hadn’t helped mold him into a versatile pass-catcher. A pivotal moment came when Martin helped steer Rodgers from his original position.
So long RB, hello WR
Rodgers grew up in Knoxville with his twin sister, A’aydra, and their mother, LaKenya Dennard. Martin was mostly away from Knoxville playing in the NFL from 2000-05 before getting into coaching in 2006.
There was no set schedule for Rodgers to visit his dad but they did their best to spend time together. Rodgers would go see Martin whenever there was free time — whether it be spring break, holidays or time out of school. When Martin was coaching, if he had a bye week or his team played on Thursdays, he’d travel down to Knoxville to watch Rodgers play. Martin also got to see A’aydra, who was a cheerleader during that time.
Rodgers was a running back from youth football into his first couple of years at Knoxville Catholic High School. But the summer before his junior season changed his football trajectory forever.
Rodgers attended a football camp at USC, where his father was coaching.
“I jumped in the receiver drills because I wanted to be coached by him,” Rodgers said. “I did well at the camp. It was one of those things that I was just trying it and did well, so I switched positions.”
Rodgers continued playing receiver when he went back to Knoxville and had a lot of success. The coaching staff devised creative ways to showcase Rodgers as a playmaker. As a junior, Rodgers had 61 receptions for 1,570 yards and 23 touchdowns. He capped off his high school career with 40 catches for 1,238 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior.
Martin always believed his son had the skills to be a standout receiver because of his “natural, strong hands” and ability to make people miss when he had the ball.
Martin was right. Rodgers was named an Under Armour All-American in 2016 and earned the 4A-level Mr. Football title in Tennessee after his junior and senior seasons.
Dad coaches Amari up
Before the Baltimore Ravens hired Martin as their wide receivers coach in February, he spent two years in the same role at his alma mater. He was preoccupied when Rodgers took the field on game day during the past two seasons, but Rodgers still felt his dad’s presence even though they were a part of two different programs.
Rodgers shared practice and game tape with his father to get his feedback.
“He was coaching me up,” Rodgers said. “It’s really a blessing knowing that he was in my corner and how I had my dad as a coach.”
That’s exactly how had been since Rodgers was in high school.
Martin had access to Rodgers’ account on Hudl, an online hub for athletes and coaches to upload game film. That allowed Martin to see a plethora of his son’s snaps at Knoxville Catholic despite being across the country.
Martin added, “The head coach [at Knoxville Catholic], Steve Matthews, was gracious enough to give me the passwords so I could watch all of his games. There wasn’t a rep he had in high school that I missed. If I saw something, I coached him just like my players. I would have notes for him after games. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but no matter what it was, he was very coachable.”
Summer visits to Los Angeles offered some hands-on coaching as well. The quarterbacking responsibilities have since been transferred to Tee’s middle son, Kaden Martin, who will play baseball and football at the University of Miami. But the instructional opportunities are still there.
Those visits to L.A. also offered Rodgers an opportunity to learn from high-caliber college players and see how they prepared for the season.
“He’s always been around the guys that I’ve coached and heard the stories of how these guys worked and things to do and not to do,” Martin said. “It really worked out for him. A lot of the guys that I’ve coached before — Robert Woods, Randall Cobb, Nelson Agholor — all had a similar trait which is that they work. I shared that with him.”
Making a college decision
USC offered Rodgers a scholarship soon after he excelled at summer camp there. Committing to USC was an easy decision, since his father would have been the position coach.
It seemed like a perfect pairing.
But Rodgers backed off of his commitment during his senior season because he wanted to make sure it was the right decision. At the time, Martin was unsure how much longer he was going to be at USC. Clemson swooped in and offered Rodgers a scholarship. Getting an opportunity to play for his dream school was an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
“As a kid, the smallest things catch your attention. I saw them running down that hill [before the game] and I told myself I wanted to go there. I started to see how Coach [Dabo] Swinney had built a great program and really developed receivers,” Rodgers said.
Choosing to go to Clemson meant Rodgers was not going to play for his father at USC. What could have been a tough conversation for others was an easy one for Rodgers, because Martin made it clear that he’d support his son no matter what.
“Clemson has a winning program. Think about the receiver tradition they’ve been blessed to have at Clemson. Dabo had brought me in to speak to Clemson’s team years before,” Martin said. “So I knew what kind of program he ran and I felt comfortable with my son going there.”
Martin was able to keep close tabs on Rodgers even though he was across the country. One of Martin’s mentors, Woody McCorvey, is Clemson’s associate athletic director of football administration.
McCorvey was the running backs coach at Tennessee the year after Martin and the Vols won the national championship in 1998. But their relationship goes back to Martin’s younger days when his grandfather was a minister in McCorvey’s hometown of Atmore, Alabama.
The relationship got stronger when the two reunited at Tennessee and continued to grow as they spoke frequently while Martin was in the NFL. Martin knew his son was in good hands with McCorvey close by.
However, another Tennessee connection helped seal the deal. Dan Brooks was the defensive line coach at Tennessee when Martin was there. As the associate head coach and defensive tackles coach at Clemson, Brooks was primarily assigned to recruit the Tennessee area. He established a relationship with Rodgers and Tee Higgins, another Tennessee (Oak Ridge High School) standout who committed to Clemson.
The decision worked out well for the whole family. Dennard lived in Knoxville, which was a three-hour drive instead of a cross-country flight to Southern California.
Rodgers finished his career at Clemson with his best season — 77 receptions for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior.
Preparing to be a pro
Martin’s experience as a receivers coach led him to emphasize how important it was to invest time in catching balls and running routes. He complimented Rodgers for his outstanding work ethic, which became one of the receiver’s standout traits while at Clemson.
“Being Amari’s dad and able to watch video and film of him and be able to give expert advice of what he needed to do, Tee helped him transition from being a running back to being a wide receiver in high school and succeed in college,” McCorvey said. “A lot of kids are not able to have that with a dad who had been a good player and coaching at the highest level.”
Clemson receivers coach Tyler Grisham identified Rodgers as the first player he would reference when motivating Clemson’s other receivers to work hard.
“They’ve seen him and know how much of a machine he is,” Grisham said. “He’s the last one off the field every time. It really was amazing to see how dedicated he was to the craft. People see that and they want to emulate it.”
“His work ethic makes you want to be better,” Clemson wide receiver and fellow draft prospect Cornell Powell said. “Being in the room with him and leading together was special. I learned from him as far as his work ethic, how he does the ball drills and stuff like that.”
That work ethic should serve Rodgers well in his transition to the NFL. Grisham pointed to how Rodgers would catch “hundreds of passes after practice” as an example of him preparing like a pro.
“This is what’s required to be elite,” Grisham said. “If you’re treating yourself like a pro right now, the ones that are able to do that are the ones that when they get to the next level, they’re already used to putting time in on their body, taking care of themselves.”
Rodgers (5-foot-10, 212 pounds) has already met with several teams before the draft. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. lists Rodgers as his 10th-ranked wide receiver prospect.
“Rodgers is a great kid who is built like a running back — compact, really strong, breaks tackles, great on bubble screens and jet sweeps,” Kiper said. “He’s one of the top slot receivers in this class. He’s going to get you yards after the catch — he’ll pick up 10, 15, 20 yards after the catch. He’s tough to tackle.”
The Titans had Rodgers meet with receivers coach Rob Moore in addition to GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel.
Kiper thinks Tennessee could take Rodgers in the second round since the Titans released Adam Humphries and don’t have a designated slot receiver.
But with Martin now in Baltimore, it’s safe to say the Ravens will have some of the best insight on Rodgers. Martin offered up his own scouting report on his son:
“Strong, explosive. Has a center of gravity that allows him to go from speed to power with ease. He is smooth in and out of breaks. He doesn’t have to break speeds to speed cut. He can catch the big balls and play bigger than he is. You can line him up all over the offense. He also has value as a punt returner. I think he’ll be very valuable to somebody’s team. Then when you add football intellect and his ability to learn football after growing up in a home where all he’s been taught is football, he’ll go someplace and be able to pick up the offense and be ready to play.”
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