TERRE HAUTE —
When first-year Rose-Hulman football coach Jeff Sokol examines the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference in 2011, he anticipates defending champion Franklin being a top contender for the title again.
“We expect Franklin to be very tough,” he stressed. “Defiance has everybody back from a very good team. Hanover will be very good. Mount St. Joseph will be really good as well.” Regarding his own Engineers, Sokol said: “I voted for us last [in the preseason coaches poll], but I expect us to win the championship, if that makes any sense.”
Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not.
“We expect to win every game,” he continued. “If we’re not HCAC champions by the end of the year, it will be a disappointing season.”
Sokol doesn’t like being disappointed, so he described how he plans to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We look to play a fast-tempo, hard-nosed style of football,” he mentioned. “We try to play fast. We try to be exciting. But at the same time, we try to be great blockers and tacklers … a hard-nosed, blue-collar style of team.
“I think a lot of people associate our style of play with being a little more finesse. But that’s not what we try to instill in our players. We try to make sure that we’re tough and physical. Hopefully, we’ll be very exciting to watch.”
And that includes the offense.
“We’ll run a shotgun, no-huddle offense,” Sokol explained. “We will always to try to do what we need to do to take advantage of what a defense is giving us, so we can exploit it.”
Handling the quarterback duties will be returning starter Mitch Snyder, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior from Casey, Ill.
“Mitch is a pretty versatile guy,” Sokol said. “He’s a solid pocket passer, he moves pretty well and he’s a big, strong guy. He doesn’t have a lot of shake, but he’s a very good north-south runner.”
Backing up Snyder will be 6-5, 225-pound sophomore Ryan Landwehr .
“He brings a similar skillset to the table that Mitch does,” Sokol remarked. “He’s a north-south runner, solid pocket passer. Ryan’s a very competent backup.”
Kyle Kovach, a 5-8, 185-pound junior, is back to serve as the Engineers’ primary ball carrier after he led the HCAC in rushing yards with 1,056 and rushing touchdowns with 11 last season. He posted six games with at least 100 yards on the ground in 2010.
“I’m tremendously happy to have Kyle,” Sokol mentioned. “He’s had a great work ethic. He’s been a leader in the weightroom. He’s one of our captains. He’s taken a big leadership role with our offense and our team in general.”
Also expected to get carries and provide Kovach with occasional breaks are sophomore Danya Francis (5-9, 180) and freshman Greg Lee (5-8, 170).
Seniors Sutton Coleman (6-2, 160) and Jordan Nielson (6-1, 175) and junior Parris Gray (5-9, 185) are veterans who will be counted on to haul in a large percentage of Snyder’s passes as the wide receivers.
“Sutton’s a great athlete, an All-American hurdler [at the NCAA Division III level],” Sokol emphasized. “He’s really kinda embraced our new offense. He’s really made a commitment to get better as a football player, so we have pretty high expectations for him.”
With Gray and Nielson splitting time at one of the other positions, Sokol named freshman Dominic Sena (5-6, 170) — “whom we have the highest of expectations for,” Sokol said — as a third starting receiver.
Splitting time at tight end are junior Alex Sonneberger (6-1, 205) and sophomore Joel Stiffler (6-2, 200), both inexperienced at the collegiate level.
Anchoring the offensive line are returning starters Jeff Ketchum (6-4, 285, senior) at tackle and Trey Cahill (5-10, 240, junior) at center, plus 2010 key reserve Kie Bates (5-11, 225, sophomore) at another tackle.
“Jeff is a very big, physical kid,” Sokol noted.
Rose’s new coach said the starting guards will be converted defensive lineman Deron Calbert (5-10, 260, junior) and Eric Taylor (6-1, 280, freshman).
“We were really concerned about the O-line coming in [to preseason camp], but we’ve plugged some holes and we feel that we’ve got a lot better unit going out there than we originally thought we were going to have,” Sokol assessed. “I’m very happy with what’s happened during camp at that position.”
The Engineers list sophomore Eric Schaible and senior Nick Schneider as their punter and field-goal kicker respectively. Schneider already is the school’s all-time leader in extra points with 111, while Schaible averaged 36.9 yards per punt last season.
Turning to defense, Sokol said he plans to use a 4-2-5 base scheme.
“Our front four should be a big physical group,” he pointed out, referring to South Putnam High School graduate Ben Parker (6-4, 235, senior), Josh Yoder (6-0, 235, sophomore), Dean Griffing (6-2, 210, sophomore) and Andy Hunkeler (6-2, 220, sophomore).
Also hoping to make immediate contributions on the D-line are sophomores Marcus Tucker (5-9, 240), Mark Fitz (5-8, 215) and Spencer Chestnut (5-10, 220).
Rose-Hulman’s linebacking corps is a mix of youth and experience. The two starters provide most of the experience — junior Ryan Gallagher (5-9, 190) and sophomore Chad Compton (6-1, 210). Sokol said sophomore Cody Rivers (6-0, 195) has missed most of camp with a concussion, but he should be able to fill in soon, as should sophomore D.J. Lawson (6-0, 225).
Starting defensive backs should include seniors Brad D’Agnillo (5-8, 190) and Matt Green (6-2, 200) and junior Jordan Martin (5-11, 190) at the three safety spots along with senior Bobby Short (6-0, 180) and either sophomore Marcus Washington (5-10, 180) or junior Shane Boschert (6-1, 180) at cornerbacks.
Martin led the team in interceptions last season with five. Washington is recovering from a concussion that was suffered on the same practice play that injured Rivers. Sokol added that sophomore Craig Voges (5-11, 190) is one of the top reserves at safety.
Staff-wise, Brian Vaughn (defensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach) and Tony Karras (defensive-line coach) are the only assistants who remain from last season. New to the crew are Brian White (recruiting coordinator and offensive line), Sam Bauman (linebackers), Erik Personius (running backs) and Greg Webster (wide receiver).
Sokol said he will serve as offensive coordinator.
Rose will open its season Saturday against longtime rival DePauw at Cook Stadium, starting at 6 p.m.
“We know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into,” Sokol admitted. “We know they’re going to provide a great challenge… We’re putting everything we’ve got into trying to get off to a great start.”