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August 31, 2012

Sokol, Engineers looking to build off 5-5 season in 2011

TERRE HAUTE — Settling into his second season as football coach at Rose-Hulman, Jeff Sokol admits preparing for 2012 has been somewhat easier than preparing for 2011.

“Everything here runs in cycles,” he told the Tribune-Star this week. “Once you’ve been through it one time, you’re definitely a little bit more used to it. You’re not caught off guard by anything.”

Coming off a 5-5 campaign last season (tied with Mount St. Joseph, Bluffton and Hanover for second place at 5-3 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference), Sokol will have two skill-position starters returning on offense.

The most notable is 5-foot-8, 185-pound running back Kyle Kovach, named a Preseason NCAA Division III All-American by USA College Football, the d3Senior Classic and Beyond College Sports Network this summer.

“He’s as good of a running back as you can get at this level,” Sokol emphasized. “He’s an exceptional player who performs at a consistently incredibly high level. We’re very excited to have him for his senior year.”

Although Kovach will be fed the ball early and often, he can’t carry it every single time. Greg Lee, a 5-9, 175-pound sophomore, and Danya Francis, a 5-9, 180-pound junior, are two who might receive some of the leftovers.

The other notable offensive returnee is third-year starter Mitch Snyder (6-2, 215), a senior quarterback from Casey, Ill.

“He’s really progressed,” Sokol said. “It seems like he’s much more productive in practice than he was last season and doing a much better job of taking care of the ball.

“Our main goal coming into the season was taking care of the football. He had too many interceptions [16] last year, too many catastrophic interceptions for touchdowns. We’re really trying to cut down on those and make sure he knows why he’s going where he’s going with the football and making the right decisions.”

Backing up Snyder is 6-6, 220-pound junior Ryan Landwehr.

“He’s also really come a long way,” Sokol noted. “We feel completely confident in Ryan, if he gets called upon, that he’ll be able to step up and produce as well.”

Names of the 2012 wide receivers might be unfamiliar to some Rose fans because none of them started last season. One young player from last season did not return to the team because of concussion issues.

Battling for playing time will be junior Connor Gerhart (5-10, 175), seniors Kris Geyer-Roberts (5-10, 180) and Shane Boschert (6-1, 180) and sophomore Matt Palla (6-0, 195).

“It’s a group of guys who have kinda worked themselves up and created opportunities for themselves,” Sokol explained, adding that 6-1, 170-pound freshman Jacob Dye also could end up in the mix.

Alex Sonneberger (6-1, 205, senior) is penciled in at tight end after recovering from a broken wrist suffered last season, although freshman Jordan Patterson (6-2, 205) and sophomore Zac Erba (6-0, 185, a converted center) might see action as well.

Sokol named senior center Trey Cahill (5-10, 240), sophomore guard Eric Taylor (6-1, 280) and junior guard Kie Bates (6-0, 245, a converted tackle) as the mainstays of the Engineers’ offensive line.

“Trey runs the show for us up there,” Sokol pointed out. “His poise and ability to get us in the right call are really critical to what we do up front.”

Sokol said at least two freshmen appear ready to make an impact on the offensive line — Jason Waldenmeyer (6-3, 260) and T.J. Demos (6-2, 230) — along with sophomore Nick Buchta (6-4, 245).

“We’ve got a lot of different ways to try to get Kyle Kovach the ball,” Sokol said in response to a question about the offense as a whole. “He was our leading receiver last year [46 catches for 408 yards] as well as our leading rusher [1,295 yards on 298 carries]. We try not to mash our best player into a wall all day long. We try to stay pretty balanced and keep the defense guessing, but Kyle Kovach will get his fair share of touches. That’s for sure.”

Handling the placekicking duties will be junior Matt Angel (6-0, 185, returning from a hip labrum tear) and/or freshman Craig Larew (6-1, 170), while junior Eric Schaible (6-4, 210) will return at punter.

“Eric is one of the best punters in the country at our level,” Sokol stressed. “We expect him to have a tremendous season.”

Turning to the defense line, 6-2, 230-pound junior end Dean Griffing (hip labrum tear) is another Engineer who’s returning from off-season surgery to start. Joining him in the trenches are junior D.J. Lawson (6-0, 225) at the other end and junior Marcus Tucker (5-9, 240) and freshman Dane Irving (5-11, 255) at tackles.

“We expect Dane to be an excellent player for us for a long time,” Sokol mentioned.

Another freshman, Casey Thomas (5-11, 235) should see time filling in at end.

Sokol added that Mark Fitz (broken foot) won’t be able to return to the field for another two weeks, while junior Josh Yoder suffered a knee injury on the first day of preseason practice and will be forced to sit out the season. Both are junior defensive linemen.

Regarding the linebackers, senior Ryan Gallagher (5-9, 190) and sophomore Grant DePalma (5-10, 205) are returning starters on the inside.

“They’re two very exceptional players,” Sokol insisted. “They’re versatile. They’re great in the run game, great in the pass game. They’re fast. They’re physical. They’re very, very good football players.”

The Rose-Hulman coach said Craig Voges (6-0, 190) will start as an outside linebacker/safety, with freshman Andrew Schuelke (6-0, 205) also seeing time at that hybrid position.

In the secondary will be senior co-captain Jordan Martin (6-1, 190, third-year starter) at strong safety, junior T.J. Chin (5-10, 180) at the other safety and sophomore Spencer Balash (5-10, 185) and junior John Burt (5-10, 170) at cornerbacks. Burt is a former West Vigo High School standout.

“A lot like Trey Cahill on the offense, Jordan is the guy who makes all the calls, gets everyone lined up correctly,” Sokol explained. “He’s been a very productive player from a tackles and interceptions standpoint.”

Kovach, Lee and Dye will serve as the primary kick and punt returners, Sokol said.

Sokol figures Franklin again will be the team to beat in the HCAC, with Mount St. Joseph, Defiance, Hanover, Bluffton and Rose trying to catch up to the Grizzlies.

“We expect to win the conference,” Sokol boldly stated. “We have to stay healthy. We have to play great for 10 straight weeks… To beat a team like Franklin [on Oct. 20], we have to be perfect. We’re going to do everything we can to get our guys in that frame of mind that week.”

Rose-Hulman will open its season Saturday against Kalamazoo College at Cook Stadium, starting at 7 p.m.

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