In his third season at Temple, Roche was given a single digit uniform number, an honor bestowed upon the team’s toughest players. After transferring to Miami (Fla.) for a final year of eligibility, Roche kept wearing a single digit, switching from No. 9 to No. 2.
Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, after he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, Roche opted for a more traditional jersey number. Thing is, he picked No. 48, the digits worn by Bud Dupree before he accepted an $82.5 million contract from the Tennessee Titans.
Unlike rookie center Kendrick Green, whose No. 53 of Maurkice Pouncey fame is a nod to his college uniform, Roche has no history with No. 48.
So why be brandished with a number that will bring obvious comparisons to Dupree, who had 19.5 sacks over his final two seasons with the Steelers?
“He’s a great player,” Roche said. “I didn’t really pick the number. It was one of the best numbers available.”
It took a few years for Dupree to live up to his status as a first-round draft pick. Expectations for Roche, a third-day selection, aren’t nearly as high or immediate. With the Steelers, he’ll get time to develop behind veteran T.J. Watt, the NFL defensive player of the year runner-up, and Dupree’s replacement, second-year linebacker Alex Highsmith.
Roche amassed 30.5 sacks in his four college seasons, including 26 at Temple. The Steelers, though, ask their edge rushers to do more than pursue the quarterback. Their outside linebackers are required to stop the run and also drop into pass coverage.
Watt quickly adapted to all three facets. It took longer for Dupree to develop and the jury is out on how productive Highsmith can be in his second NFL season.
“Is pass coverage a big deal for us? It is at times,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We don’t ask them to do one or two things. … A lot of times, they’re playing more of a defensive rush end guy for us than they are in coverage. However, we will use them in coverage. But the main part of their responsibility is going to be stopping the run and rushing the passer.”
Roche’s development will continue this week when the Steelers begin organized team activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Six years earlier, the Steelers asked another Miami defensive end that they drafted in the sixth round, Anthony Chickillo, to switch from defensive end to outside linebacker, and he lasted five seasons with the organization.
Chickillo, though, weighed 267 pounds when he came out of college and had to become leaner in order to play the position in the NFL. Roche stands 6-foot-3, like Chickillo, but he weighed 245 pounds at Miami’s pro day. That makes him the lightest of the outside linebackers with NFL experience on the Steelers roster and could help explain why Roche was still on the board in the sixth round.
“I’m not a guy that will just run a 4.3. I’m not going to jump a 45-inch vertical, but I have decent athleticism,” Roche said. “I’m a technician and a football player. When I line up in front of a guy, my technique and my football intelligence is what’s going to make me a good player.”
Roche’s football acumen was on display in 2019 when he was a redshirt junior at Temple. He ranked eighth among FBS schools with 13 sacks and tied for 10th with 19 tackles for loss. He also broke up six passes.
It was during this season that Roche became part of Temple tradition when he was given No. 9. Former coach Al Golden began the ritual in 2009, and the school has handed out single-digit jerseys to its toughest players for the past eight seasons. Among the previous Temple players to sport a single-digit number were first-round pick Haason Reddick, second-rounder Rock Ya-Sin and former Steelers special teams standout Tyler Matakevich.
“Temple TUFF is a mentality, not just physically tough, but mentally tough,” Roche said. “It’s a mentality you’ve got to bring every day. It’s something we’re kind of conditioned to be. If you look at any Temple football player that went pro in the past, you’ll see there’s a difference in their mentality than guys that come from elsewhere.”
In his lone year at Miami, Roche’s sacks total dropped to 4.5 although he did have 14.5 tackles for loss in 10 starts. Transferring to a new program and then not having the benefit of spring football because of the pandemic could explain the dip in productivity. Roche also played on a defense that included fellow edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, the 18th overall pick in the draft.
“That’s kind of been the story of my life,” Roche said. “I wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school. I had to work my way into a starting role at Temple, even coming out of Miami, somehow I became a second fiddle.
“I’ve always had to prove myself and just work a little bit harder. It’s nothing new to me.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .