TERRE HAUTE —
FN Lutz is back, sporting a “new body,” as Indiana State strength coach Dave McMannus puts it, after the 6-foot-3, 290-pound center has rehabilitated from reconstructive knee surgery 15 months ago.
Lutz also features a new clean-cut hairstyle.
Running back Shakir Bell just hopes it’s the same old Lutz leading the Sycamores’ offensive line.
“FN is one of our best players. He gets around really fast whenever he’s pulling [getting down field to block], he’s one of the strongest guys. He’s a weight-room warrior, one of the best character guys I’ve ever met,” Bell said.
Without Lutz at center, the Sycamores fell to 158.8 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry in 2012. That’s a fairly steep drop from a Missouri Valley Football Conference best of 181.9 per game and 5.3 yards per carry in 2011. While a transition in passing-game skill players had an effect, the lack of Lutz in the middle of things factored into the decline.
With a pair of returning starters in Adam Masters at right guard and Paul Patrick at right tackle, the Sycamores have veterans ready to up the production under a new coaching regime.
Learning a new offensive system under first-year head coach Mike Sanford should not be an issue with Lutz leading the group.
“Football’s football. A lot of guys try to make it complicated. When it comes down to it, everybody runs zone, everybody runs power,” Lutz said. “It’s just the terminology of how they want things done. The technique’s a little different, that’s what we’re focused on.
“We’ve got most of it down, we’re just trying to advance that.”
Patrick, a 6-7, 300-pound third-year starter, said the Sycamores will take the running game back to dominant levels.
“FN is huge to have back. With this new offense the coaches brought in, I think we’re really going to spread the field out and Shakir’s going to hit the seams and he’s going to do what he needs to do,” Patrick said.
After two days of practice, it’s clear the Sycamores are going to try to get the ball to Bell and other running backs more in open space, meaning through the passing game.
But make no mistake, the Sycamores are ready to let Bell do his thing behind a massive offensive line.
“We spread it out a little bit more. We’re still going to do power, we’re still going to hit zone, we’re still going to do things inside that we do best,” Bell said.
Sanford spoke earlier this week about how he wanted the offensive line and Bell to set the tone in practice. He’s seen that so far from his first string unit.
“There’s a difference between the ones and twos. There’s a great attitude and tempo with the ones. The young guys, the twos, have got to pick up the pace,” Sanford said.
The Sycamores have a large group of large-scale men competing for playing time on the offensive line.
Redshirt freshman Dakota Vermillion is up to 6-7 and 305 pounds after a couple months of hard work in the offseason.
The former Terre Haute North High School standout is working with the No. 1 unit at left tackle. Senior Clyde Ignont is working with the first unit at left guard after gaining some experience with ISU as a junior college transfer in 2012.
“I’m the rookie of the unit,” Vermillion said. “Just worked hard, worked my way up.”
Vermillion has taken his bench press from 300 pounds to 380 pounds since arriving at ISU. He’s also picked up the new offense pretty quickly.
“When we started out, it wasn’t the easiest thing because it’s a pretty complex offense. Other than that, it’s been pretty easy going,” Vermillion said.
It helps to have a guy like Lutz, an excellent communicator, directing the group.
“HIs leadership’s one of the biggest things. If you have a question, you can go to him and ask anything. He knows about everything about the offensive line,” Vermillion said.
And if you screw up?
“He might chew you out, but he’s going to come back and help you out in the long run by telling you what to do,” Vermillion said.
Sanford is happy to have inherited a strong situation on the line as he tries to create an explosive offense in his first season at the helm.
“FN is our leader, he’s the guy that makes all the calls. He gives us a lot of stability,” Sanford said. “The experience is a good factor, those guys working well together and communicating well is important.”
At this point, Sanford likes the competition level at various positions, and the offensive line is one of them.
Aaron Jelovich (6-3, 305) is a newcomer from Foothills Community College challenging for time in the interior line, and sophomore Evan Goebel (6-3, 320) will be a contender for a starting job as well, Sanford said.
A couple of true freshmen also have the attention of the coaching staff because of their size and potential.
Chicago product Nick Dachota (6-8, 295) could vie for time at tackle, while Iowa native Zach Borens is 6-8 and 384 pounds.
“He’s a really big dude. We’ve got a lot of competition. It’s a good situation,” Sanford said. “There’s some competition we have going on right now on the offensive line. We haven’t determined the starters on the line.”
Let the hard work continue.
“We’re getting everything together, we’re getting everything rolling,” Lutz said. “The younger guys, they got to come along, they’ve got to get moving. But other than that, upfront, we’re doing all right.”