Stevie Rocker Jr. at this time last year knew he was headed to Arizona — he committed to the staff of then-coach Kevin Sumlin in July 2020 — but the former Canyon del Oro running back did not know how much game experience he would have coming off an injury his junior season.
A lot of uncertainty surrounded Rocker because of his ankle injury that kept him out for half of the 2019 season, and then COVID-19 hit and the Dorados did not play until Oct. 30.
The ordeal could have been unraveling for him, but it strengthened him mentally.
“It helped me out to stay with the process,” Rocker said to local media on Tuesday at Arizona’s Lowell-Stevens Facility. “It helped me to understand this kind of stuff (injuries) happens. Whether you want to keep trying to play the game or if you really want to keep going, just stay with the process and the recovery.
“Don’t turn away from it.”
Rocker has gone from that tenuous situation in his last two seasons at CDO — he also had lingering leg injuries in the Dorados’ four games last season — to being a valuable contributor to Arizona’s offense as a true freshman.
Even more fascinating: he has played at the fullback position (at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, about 20 pounds heavier than his CDO days) lining up in front of tailback Drake Anderson.
Talk about going from not knowing what could come next as a 17-year-old to becoming a reliable piece of Arizona’s offense.
“I think Stevie’s attitude has been really good from the time we’ve been here,” Arizona offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “He’s just a young pup, but when he is out in space and he has the ball in his hands, he’s done some dynamic things.”
That was evident in Arizona’s game with UCLA on Saturday when Rocker put his skills on display for the hometown fans.
He made his first run in college, a 9-yard gain off tackle, and finished with 12 yards on two carries. He also caught two passes out of the backfield for 27 yards.
“They kind of threw it (playing fullback) at me like, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you here to give you more opportunities to get you on the field,'” Rocker said. “I kind of just took it and ran with it. I didn’t shy away from it. Obviously, I’m not going to say no to get a chance on the field.”
Rocker said he last played fullback for the Marana Broncos of the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation when he was in the eighth grade five years ago.
That TYFSF experience had a significant impact on Rocker, who talked about the youngsters who were on display at Arizona Stadium at halftime of Saturday’s game — a special moment that happened with him when he was 8 years old.
He recalled running into the end zone on one play and hearing the Arizona Stadium crowd cheer.
“Since then, it’s been a cool idea to play on the field,” Rocker said. “Now that I have that opportunity, it’s kind of like a dream come true, a dream’s-a-reality type of stuff.”
Rocker developed into a 13U TYFSF All-Star with the Broncos and it was at that time his parents Steve Sr. and Sandra realized he had a future in college football.
Sandra said there was a time “we never thought he would play football” because “when he was 2 or 3 he would sit on his basketball and read books in the hallway of the house.”
“He has showed a winning attitude and a never-quit determination,” Sandra continued. “He has the drive to be the best. He was always coachable, but that year (when he was in the eighth grade), a light came on in him and you could see it through his smile and on the field.”
That drive of his included running the beaches on their vacations, staying late at practice and putting in extra time with his weight-training sessions at CDO.
“He said he wanted to play in the NFL,” Sandra recalled. “He did school projects around wanting to play in the NFL, wanting to win a national championship in youth football, win a state title — he’s done them all with his youth football team.
“He was determined to play for a D1 college and he made sure his grades were right. He took all the classes needed to get there.”
Once Rocker got on Arizona’s campus and engaged in workouts, the idea was to never accept a redshirt status.
According to Carroll, Rocker put in the work to make himself available for immediate playing opportunities as a true freshman.
Rocker did not allow new head coach Jedd Fisch and his staff to automatically put him in wait-and-see mode.
“He earned it,” Carroll said of Rocker’s playing time. “He had a great spring, worked his tail off. Really hard worker. He’s earned his shots.”
Sandra mentioned that her son is more action than words — “You have to pretty much pry conversation out of him, but with football, he would always have something to say,” she said — and that is evident with how his career is rapidly developing at Arizona.
He could have went elsewhere with Washington, California and Nevada seriously recruiting him, but Rocker welcomed the idea of becoming an example that a local standout can choose to stay home and experience success.
Salpointe standouts Bijan Robinson (Texas), Lathan Ransom (Ohio State) and Bruno Fina (UCLA) decided to leave town for opportunities elsewhere at the D1 level. Not Rocker, who said “there is nothing wrong” with his decision to play for his hometown school.
Asked @Srocker6, a former @cdo_football standout RB, about the hot topic of DI-level prospects leaving Tucson and chance to play at Arizona for other big-name programs and he mentioned the work is underway with Jedd Fisch and staff to turn that around. pic.twitter.com/QXYMOE2tla
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) October 12, 2021
“I would love to tell everyone to come to Arizona,” Rocker said. “Once in a while, people want to take that look for a win. It’s deeper than just winning. The coaching staff is great (at Arizona). The players are great.
“We just have to figure it out, the new staff and everything, and get everything lined up and show people what they’re really missing.”
That never-quit determination Sandra commented about her son was enhanced playing for CDO coach Dustin Peace, who has a history of developing D1 talent such as Ka’Deem Carey and Blake Martinez, both of whom advanced to the NFL.
Peace also helped put undersized Jared Tevis in position to succeed as a walk-on safety at Arizona. Tevis became a leader on defense for the the Wildcats when they won the 2014 Pac-12 South championship.
Rocker said Peace helped him stay “humble and take things day by day.”
“Don’t focus too much on what’s going on and what’s coming in,” he said of Peace’s approach. “Just keep grinding, keep going. His thing was appreciate the grind and keep going forward.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District