Rochester, Blaylock overcome obstacles and earn the rewards

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  • Mookie Blaylock
    Mookie Blaylock
    American basketball player

Jan. 11—Julian Rochester and Dominick Blaylock are national champions.

For a couple of former high-level recruits who have seen their college careers take a hit, it has to be the sweetest payoff and make it worth all the wear and tear their bodies have gone through the last couple of years. It shows that the hard work to overcome the adversity and get back on the field is worth it, and it shows the leadership other players can point to if faced with similar situations.

That said, it certainly hasn't been easy.

For Rochester, it is definitely a happy ending to what must have become a frustrating college career. He was part of the defensive rotation during Monday night's 33-18 victory over Alabama in the national championship game in Indianapolis, but it could have been so much more.

A five-star recruit from McEachern High School, Rochester was recruited by former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, but he remained with the program as it made the transition to coach Kirby Smart.

It was a good decision as the 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle started six games his freshman year in 2016. In 2018, he started 12 games and had arguably his best season with 31 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks.

Heading into his senior season in 2019, Rochester was certainly on the radar of NFL scouts, but injuries then started to take a toll. An injury suffered before the season limited Rochester to only sparse action in four games. He came back on a medical redshirt in 2020, but an ACL injury ended his season after only five games.

This year, as the grizzled old veteran at the age of 24, Rochester came back one more time as a sixth-year senior. He was finally healthy midway through the season and played sparingly in each of the last seven games.

As it turned out, Rochester was the only member on the current roster to have played against Alabama in the teams' first national championship meeting four years ago.

Rochester finished the 2021 season with only four tackles and one tackle for loss, but it was his effort to get back that many of the players on defense rallied around.

It was reported that after Georgia's SEC championship loss to Alabama, Rochester was seen crying because the loss was so emotional. It was reported he was bawling after the national championship game, too, but for a completely different, and much happier, reason.

"I could just see the emotion in his face," linebacker Nakobe Dean said in the postgame press conference. "Just seeing him was a representation of everything that (we'd) done it for, all the fans, all my brothers that I love, my family, everybody from back at home, all the kids looking up to us."

Rochester's high school coach, Kyle Hockman, now the coach at New Hampstead High School near Savannah, was not the least bit surprised Rochester's teammates felt that way toward him.

"He never wavered," Hockman said about Rochester's determination to get back and help the team any way he could. "More than that, he's a quality human being. He was one of the best guys I've ever coached. He was well-respected in high school as a 17-year-old, so it doesn't surprise me to hear (what Dean said.)

Blaylock's college career has been a challenge because of injury as well.

As a freshman, from the same recruiting class as big-play receiver George Pickens, the Blaylock, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound wide receiver from Walton, made an immediate impact. Playing in 12 games, he caught 18 passes for 310 yards and was second on the team with five touchdown receptions. He also took over as the main punt returner, with 14 returns for 128 yards.

The former five-star recruit's first season came to an end early when he left the SEC championship game against LSU in the first quarter with a torn ACL after making a catch over the middle.

After working hard to get back in time for the 2020 season, Blaylock tore the same ACL again during preseason practice. Finally, 23 months after last playing a game, Blaylock got back into action when he caught two passes for 11 yards and had two punt returns for 5 yards earlier this season against Charleston Southern.

Other than that, Blaylock has played sparingly, seeing mostly action on the return teams. The only other stat he recorded this season was a tackle on the opening kickoff against Georgia Tech.

While Rochester's career in Athens may be finished, Blaylock, a redshirt sophomore who was the overall national No. 5 wide receiver in the class of 2019, has three more years of eligibility to get his career back on track. Based on the amount of work he has done through all the hours of rehab, odds are Blaylock will find a way to do it.

"It's been difficult for him, especially since the second surgery," said John Woods, Blaylock's stepfather, "but he feels like next year could be like his freshman year."

Woods said that some of Blaylock's struggles have come in overcoming the mental barriers in dealing with the injuries. To help get over some of them, the team had Blaylock play special teams just so he could run up and down the field.

However, he had an unintended flashback in the SEC title game. In the building where Blaylock had his initial injury, he watched as Alabama receiver John Metchie — wearing No. 8 like Blaylock — suffered a torn ACL, which kept him out of the College Football Playoff.

With the season now behind him, Blaylock can now focus once again on being the player everybody expected he would be coming out of high school, and his high school coach, Daniel Brunner, expects big things going forward.

"It's special to watch a guy battle back and win a national championship," Brunner said. "He got up there as a freshman and was their leading receiver for awhile. For me, he's just got something special. He just makes plays. I think he flies under the radar a little bit, but I think he's going to shock some people next year."

Plus, Blaylock has a chance to do something no other Georgia football player has done before — win a second title.

Whether that comes to fruition or not, one thing is for certain — Rochester and Blaylock each have one. It can never be taken away, and it shows what can happen when good people put in the work.

John Bednarowski is the sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. He can be be reached at sportseditor@mdjonline.com or on Twitter @jbednarowski or @cobbfballfri.

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