Roper in a rush to make Steelers roster
By Joe Starkey
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Mr. Roper's making a name for himself at Steelers camp.

That would be rookie free-agent linebacker Dedrick Roper, who sparked the Steelers' interest with a stellar showing at the Whataburger Cactus Bowl.

The Whataburger what?

Relax. You've probably never heard of Roper's alma mater, either. He graduated from Northwood University in Midland, Mich.

Roper considered himself lucky to join the Steelers in Latrobe and downright blessed to be running with the first-team defense a few days into camp.

Injuries to Clark Haggans and Alonzo Jackson, who has since returned, afforded Roper a chance to open some eyes at the left outside slot.

He didn't squander it, although he sustained a hyper-extended knee in practice Saturday and could miss a few days.

Count coach Bill Cowher and ex-Steelers star Kevin Greene among those who've publicly praised Roper. "Fast and aggressive," Cowher said.

Greene, who is working with the linebackers, ranks third on the NFL's all-time sacks list and views the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Roper as a potential quarterback slayer.

"He's got a nice little shake about him when he's rushing on the perimeter, and he has a lot of power," Greene said. "He's running over some folks. I don't know what the coaches think; I can just tell you the kid has a motor."

That's exactly what Northwood coach Pat Riepman used to say about Roper, who had 10 sacks his senior season and led the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with 19 tackles for losses.

The Steelers took note of Roper in the NCAA Division II All-Star Game, otherwise known as the Whataburger Cactus Bowl.

Roper, who said even people at the game never heard of Northwood, led the East with seven total tackles.

Six months later, he was lining up next to Joey Porter, James Farrior and Kendrell Bell.

And feeling quite comfortable. Roper figures to be in the race for the final linebacker slot, battling fifth-round draft pick Nathaniel Adibi and a few others.

"I feel like I can keep up with these guys," he said. "Pass rush is my bread and butter. If I can't do anything else, man, I can rush the passer. That's my main focus."

It always was, going back to Milpitas High School in Milpitas, Calif., where Roper blitzed on every play.

He also played quarterback, fullback and wide receiver, and, for good measure, helped the school's 4X100 relay team win a sectional title.

Colorado, Michigan State and pretty much the entire Pac-10 recruited Roper, but many backed off when he sustained a season-ending knee injury (sprained MCL) early in his senior season.

He walked on at Michigan State in 1999 but after lettering two years became frustrated with his limited role and lack of a scholarship.

"I didn't feel I was being utilized correctly," Roper said. "Then, in my final season, I got in there the last game (against Missouri) and I had seven tackles in the first quarter. After that, I was like, 'You know what? I'm done.' "

Roper had no plans to continue his football career but reconsidered when a former Michigan State teammate who was playing at Northwood called.

"He knew I wasn't doing anything and said, 'You want to come play some football?' " Roper said.

Still, the NFL wasn't even a pipe dream.

"Really, it wasn't one of my goals," Roper said. "I was having fun playing, but I was mainly focused on trying to get a good degree and a job."

Roper's degree is in business management marketing. If he doesn't make the team, the practice squad could be an option. NFL practice squads have been increased from five to eight players.

Roper can hardly wait for the preseason opener Saturday in Detroit. He was born in that city, and Ford Field is only two hours from Northwood.

In the meantime, he already has made a good first impression -- and those tend to last.

"The whole point for a rookie in camp is opening the coaches' eyes, so they remember your name, so you won't be cut," Greene said. "Once you make the team, your foot's in the door."