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'Sky's the limit' for football newcomer Cajuste

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His persistence paid off.

Determination is what ultimately led to the Patriots calling Yodny Cajuste’s name in Round 3 of this year’s NFL Draft.

It’s not hyperbole to go so far as to suggest that Cajuste would not even be playing football today were it not for the doggedness displayed by… Damon Cogdell?

As athletic director at Miramar High School, about halfway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami on Florida’s Atlantic coast, Cogdell frequently attended the school’s basketball games. There, Cogdell, who doubled as Miramar’s head football coach, kept noticing a young man who stood out among his peers.

“I’d see this big kid – 6-4, 245, 250 – and I’d say to myself, ‘He’s not an NBA center, but he IS an NFL tackle or defensive end,’” Cogdell recalls. “I approached him probably five different occasions to come play football, and he’d be like, ‘All right, Coach, I’ll come,’ but he never did. So, one day, I said, ‘I’m going to ask this kid one more time.’”

That was just six years ago, in the spring of 2013, at the end of Cajuste’s junior year.

“I said, ‘Yodny, if you come out to practice and you see what we do and you don’t get any offers at the end of spring, you can go back to basketball full-time.’ And he ended up coming out and liking it. We put him at left tackle.”

A DIFFERENT FEELING, A BROTHERHOOD

As Cogdell foresaw, Cajuste began generating considerable buzz among major college football observers after that spring practice season. Then came football season later that same year, and Cajuste helped Miramar go undefeated until the state semifinals. Because football season went so far into the calendar, Cajuste, by the end, was playing both football and basketball for a couple of weeks.

“He came back to me,” Cogdell continues, “and said, ‘Coach, I’m not playing basketball anymore. I’m going to stick with football.’ And this is a kid who’s been playing basketball his whole life! He loved the camaraderie, the things we did as a team. It was a different feeling to him, a brotherhood, which I think is why he decided to switch to football fulltime. He played pretty good for his first year playing football.”

So, why was Cajuste so reluctant the first several times Cogdell tried to coax him to the gridiron?

“Because he heard about Coach Cogdell and his training regimen and how disciplined it was,” the coach explains. “He was a little timid about that part of it, with outside running all the time. We try to run it as close to a college program as we could. We spent a lot of time with those guys. When he got on board, he loved every minute of it. He realized that football was going to be his avenue to get a free education and hopefully the NFL.”

Following Cajuste’s one and only season of high school football, he faced an enviable choice. Colleges did come calling, including the University of Florida, a five-hour drive from his home. But so did the Mountaineers of the University of West Virginia.

A former linebacker for West Virginia, Cogdell accepted an assistant coaching position at his alma mater shortly after Miramar’s season ended. Having developed a close relationship with his player, he cajoled Cajuste to follow him north to Morgantown.

“On his official visit to West Virginia, it was a snowstorm,” Cogdell remembers with a shiver in his voice. “It took us maybe an hour to drive a mile to get where we needed to go. So, I was a little leery. I thought this kid might not want to come now. But he stayed loyal and trusted in me.”

STAY THERE AND STAY HEALTHY

In conditioning drills during Cajuste’s first summer at West Virginia, he was outrunning his fellow offensive linemen by such great distances that the coaching staff decided to try him at defensive end. Cogdell stuck with his instincts, though.

“I told [West Virginia head coach Dana] Holgorsen, ‘We might want to move him back to tackle. He’s very raw at defensive end, but I think he can make a lot of money at offensive tackle.’ Ron Crook, the then-offensive line coach agreed. Ron developed him to be a pretty good player.”

He admits he was worried initially when Crook later left West Virginia that Cajuste would fall into a slump, but those fears proved unwarranted.

“Coach [Joe] Wickline did a great job with him, too,” Cogdell observes. “And he wanted to be good. When you come to a program and want to be good, you’ll get results. He locked in to getting bigger, faster, stronger and working on his craft.”

Cogdell eventually moved on, too, and is now an assistant for Alabama State, but he’s kept in touch with his protégé. In fact, Cogdell was one of the people Cajuste turned to a year ago when he contemplated declaring early for the NFL Draft. The coach’s advice?

“We spoke a couple of times and I told him he needed to stay. Stay there and stay healthy. Eat right, live right. I think he made a great decision by staying his senior year.”

Health has been perhaps the primary reason for any stunting of Cajuste’s development as a football player. Knee injuries ended his 2015 and ’16 seasons prematurely, and he’s currently rehabilitating from a quadriceps injury that required surgery this past March. Though far from a finished product, Cajuste has intriguing potential. The Patriots clearly see it the way Cogdell did all those years ago at Miramar.

“With his pass-blocking skills, I think his footwork is pretty good. I just want to see him more physical at the point of contact when it comes to run-blocking,” Cogdell offers. “One thing he’ll learn [in the NFL] is those guys are pretty fast. You’ve got guys who are twitchy, undersized defensive ends that are almost outside linebackers that are like 230 pounds and can run. That’s going to come with repetition with the Patriots. With his wingspan and footwork, he’ll be fine. I think this kid is very polished…. His football IQ was very good. I think he’s headed in the right direction. And the plus is that he has one of the best organizations in the NFL.  

“He’s a team guy, he’s not an ‘I’ guy,” Cogdell remarks. “The thing about this kid is he’s always been very humble. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ When I talk to him now, he’s still the same person. I told him, ‘You’re starting as a Patriot; hopefully you’ll end as a Patriot.’ The Patriots have a great organization. I think it’s going to be a great move for him from a learning aspect, continuing to learn the game. The sky’s the limit for this kid.”

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