Mentor pestered WVU’s Cajuste into giving football a try

MORGANTOWN — His future rested with basketball, Yodny Cajuste was certain of it.

And no matter how many times the football coach at Miramar High approached him in the hallways — insisting to Cajuste that, “You’re a future offensive tackle” — the 6-foot-5 kid wasn’t willing to trade sneakers for cleats.

Then Damon Cogdell made one final push.

“I told Yodny this was the last time, that I wasn’t going to ask him anymore,” Cogdell said.

Their conversation during the spring of 2013 hinged on a dare.

“He kept nagging me, probably like nine or 10 times,” Cajuste said. “Then he made me a bet: If I go out for spring football and get one offer, I’d have to stay and play football. If I didn’t get an offer, I could go back to basketball.”

This is where Cajuste flashes a smile wider than Broward County and adds, “I ended up getting five.”

WVU is glad Cogdell proved so persuasive. It’s preseason all-Big 12 left tackle is about to enter his fourth year as a starter.

FAST LEARNER

Thinking back five years, to that first day of spring practice, in fact, a Kentucky assistant kept sizing up Cajuste, who wondered, “Why is he looking at me when I’ve never played football before?” The coach knew a big-framed project when he saw one, telling Cajuste the Wildcats would offer him if he was serious about sticking with football.

Genetics aside, how would Cajuste adjust to the physicality and footwork required of linemen, particularly against the elite talent produced in south Florida?

“I’m a fast learner,” he said. “And the guys on our team at Miramar, you just wanted to go out and play hard for them. You couldn’t be a slouch out there.

“I had the mind set that I’m not going to let anybody embarrass me.”

Cogdell didn’t have to coach softness out of Cajuste, who played with natural aggression. Even the technical side came relatively quickly.

“Yodny was raw, but it was easy to correct his mistakes,” Cogdell said. “It’s like teaching a baby, because he hadn’t developed any flaws yet.”

Cajuste became a two-way player on the lines, helping Miramar start 12-0 and obtain a top-20 national ranking. When an upset loss in the Class 8A state quarterfinals spoiled the playoff run, Cajuste opted to give up basketball, where he had been contacted by Old Dominion and other mid-majors.

“The brotherhood and love we showed him, I guess it opened his eyes to what football was about and where it could take him,” Cogdell said.

It also hammered home the realization that 6-foot-5 power forwards weren’t sought-after by schools.

“Not unless you’re like Kobe,” Cajuste said, “and I wasn’t like Kobe.”

SNOWY MORGANTOWN

Will Muschamp and Florida hosted Cajuste in mid-January 2014 and might have landed him on the spot if not for Cogdell coaxing a follow-up visit to his alma mater, WVU.

Cogdell was joining Dana Holgorsen’s staff — for what became a two-year stay — and numerous Miramar players had become Mountaineers.

But Cajuste had grown up a Miami fan and was only mildly aware of the West Virginia connections. Upon taking the lineman to Morgantown a week later, Cogdell was petrified to see the campus blanketed by a snowstorm.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, not snow!’ But Yodny didn’t look at that,” he said. Instead he bonded with offensive line coach Ron Crook and believed WVU could develop him.

Having grown from 215 pounds to 240 as a high school senior, Cajuste reached 280 during fall semester of his redshirt year.

“I was eating every hour,” he said.

And he was starting at left tackle the next season.

BLITZ AND BATTERED

WVU outscored its first three opponents, 130-23, during 2015, leading up to the Week 4 conference opener, against Oklahoma. Cajuste hoped he was prepared to face linebacker Eric Striker, but it didn’t pan out.

“I had heard Norman is going to be crazy, and Striker is the top D-lineman in the conference,” Cajuste said. “But I’m not going to lie, when I went up against him this guy was fast off the edge. When the ball snapped, wheeeeew, he was off the line.”

The ensuing week’s match-up against Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah also provided painful moments. By the time WVU lost its third straight game the next week, at Baylor, Cajuste was hobbled by an injury that sidelined him for six of the final seven games.

Cajuste’s sophomore year vanished within an hour of kicking off thanks to an ACL injury in the first quarter of the 2016 opener, against Missouri.

By season’s end, he was coping with staff changes that led to the departures of Crook and Cogdell They wound up at Cincinnati and USF, respectively.

“Yodny liked Crook a lot, but Dana promised me he’d take care of Yodny — and he has,” Cogdell said. “West Virginia was a great decision for him, and I think he’ll have a great senior year as part of a great offense.”

While considering early entry into the NFL draft, Cajuste graduated last December. Now he’s the blind-side protector for Heisman candidate Will Grier and a big reason WVU is picked to challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 crown.

“So much is expected,” Cajuste said, “we can’t just go tank.”

Whatever trajectory the season takes, he’ll frequently be texting about it with his mentor Cogdell, grateful for the relationship that began between classes at Miramar.

“I tell the man thank you so much — thank you, thank you,” Cajuste said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here. That man, he gets all my respect.”

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