TERRE HAUTE —
Since finishing 4-6 in 2004, the Rose-Hulman football program has posted marks of 5-5, 6-4, 7-3, 7-3, 6-4, 6-4, 5-5 and 5-5 respectively.
That’s eight straight seasons without a losing record.
While such consistency is admirable, the Engineers would like to bust through the wall of upper-echelon teams and contend for — or preferably win — the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship this fall.
That will be difficult, with perennial power Franklin returning several starters from last season, but third-year Rose coach Jeff Sokol believes it’s possible.
“Franklin’s been the best team in our conference clearly for the last three years and they’re picked to win it again this year,” Sokol admitted. “So they’re loaded.”
For that rise in Rose-Hulman’s status to happen, Sokol said its offense needs to improve from what he’s seen so far in preseason training camp.
“We’re still inconsistent [in practice],” he told the Tribune-Star. “There’s definitely some good things. We’ve got some really good players.
“We’ve just got to figure out who our best 11 are, what they do really well and find our identity as an offense. We’re getting closer to that every day.”
Sokol named 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior Ryan Landwehr as the starting quarterback. Landwehr replaces three-year starter Mitch Snyder, who graduated.
“Ryan is really, really smart,” Sokol emphasized. “He’s a 4.0 [grade-point average] student and he’s also a student of the game.
“He’s really good at understanding what we’re trying to do schematically from a pass-protection standpoint and from a dissection-of-coverage standpoint. He’s really good and he’s a big kid. He’s got some physical attributes that are very positive. He’s a big, tough kid. We expect to use him in short-yardage situations to run the ball.”
While Sokol likes the potential of Landwehr, there are concerns too.
“He needs to throw the ball consistently,” the Engineers’ coach stressed. “We’ve got some big playmakers at the receiver positions. He’s got to do a great job of getting them the ball efficiently.”
Backing up Landwehr is junior Brian Soller (5-10, 175).
Turning to running back, Sokol anticipates senior Danya Francis (5-9, 180) and junior Greg Lee (5-9, 175) splitting most of the playing time.
“They’ve both had a really nice training camp,” Sokol noted. “They’ve both had a lot of experience, filling in for [the since-graduated] Kyle Kovach when he was injured or just needed a rest. So they’ve both had some good, quality experience in their time here at Rose-Hulman. Now they’re ready for the challenge of taking on more of a full-time role.”
Sokol was asked to compare the styles of each.
“Danya is kind of a vision and a feel runner,” he explained. “Greg has probably a little bit more speed. But they are pretty similar style-wise.”
At wide receiver, senior co-captain Connor Gerhart (5-10, 185) was the first name Sokol mentioned.
“He’s been dealing with a little bit of a back issue throughout camp … so hopefully we’ll have him back for Kalamazoo [season opener on the road this Saturday],” the Rose coach said. “We expect great things out of him.”
But the true playmakers at that position are sophomores Jake Dye (6-1, 180) and Aaron Abbott (5-11, 185).
Abbott caught a team-high 49 passes for 505 yards and six touchdowns while also rushing for 235 yards on only 28 carries in 2012. At the same time, Dye hauled in 39 passes for a team-high 570 yards and five TDs while also returning 18 kickoffs for 398 yards (a 22.1 average per attempt).
“They’re both very fast,” Sokol pointed out. “Jake is more of a straight-ahead-speed kind of guy. He’s a great deep-route runner. We try to get him the ball in space a little bit.
“Aaron is a guy who was a great high school tailback [in Lebanon, Ohio] that we converted into a slot receiver. So he also carries the ball a lot for us. We have a lot of designed run plays for him to carry the ball. He’ll probably get eight to 10 running plays a game, along with kickoffs and things like that. Those guys need to be touching the ball at least 15 times a game each for us to be successful.”
Also expected to earn a few receptions are tight ends Zac Erba (6-0, 185, junior) and Barry Tomasetti (6-1, 205, sophomore). Erba had been an offensive lineman and long snapper in the past.
“He’s really improved his pass-catching ability,” Sokol said of Erba. “I can’t think of a time [during training camp] when he’s dropped a pass. It went from being his weakness to his strength. … It’s nice to see his hard work really pay off.”
Sokol mentioned that Tomasetti arrived at Rose-Hulman as a quarterback last year.
“He came in as a quarterback and played receiver for us last year,” the Engineers’ coach continued. “He’s just a big, thick kid that we started playing at tight end. He’s really taken well to that position.”
Regarding the offensive line, Sokol described it as “probably our biggest strength.”
“We have a lot of experience and some really talented young players as well,” he explained. “We’re still trying to sort out exactly who our best five are and what positions suit them. We’ve been moving them around a lot, trying to find the right combination. We’ve probably got 11 offensive linemen who we can put in a football game and not have any issues.”
Key O-line returnees include senior co-captain Kie Bates (6-0, 245), sophomore T.J. Demos (6-2, 230), junior Eric Taylor (6-1, 280), sophomore Jason Waldenmeyer (6-3, 260) and junior Nick Buchta (6-4, 245). Mentioning possible positions for each would be too space-consuming, considering that Sokol and his coaching staff are still mixing and matching.
On special teams, senior Eric Schaible (6-4, 210) ranks second in school history in career punting average (38.6 yards per attempt). Last season, his average of 40.5 ranked second in the HCAC. Over the past three seasons, he’s had 33 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with only five touchbacks.
“He’s very accurate,” Sokol said of Schaible. “He’s a really nice weapon for us as a punter.”
Meanwhile, senior Matt Angel (6-0, 285) is the frontrunner to handle placekicking duties. A labrum tear caused Angel to miss the entire 2011 season and he still wasn’t fully recovered when he tried to play last season, Sokol said.
“He’s looked significantly better this year,” the Rose coach noted.
Last season’s primary kicker — 6-1, 170-pound sophomore Craig Larew (4 of 7 on field goals and 23 of 27 on extra points) — also is back to battle for playing time, along with Westfield, Ill., sophomore Clark Schultz (6-2, 155).
“We’re not afraid to split the [kicking] duties up,” Sokol admitted. “We might have a kickoff-only guy, we might have a PAT/field goal guy and we might have a deep field goal guy. We still have some figuring out to do with that.”
Sokol said freshman Joe Moehrle (6-0, 195) will be the primary punt returner, if he can stay healthy, while Abbott, Dye and Lee will see time on kickoffs when they’re not too tired.
Now for Rose-Hulman’s 4-2-5 defense, which triggered more positive remarks from Sokol than the offense.
“They’re very aggressive,” he assessed. “They’re a confident group, led by senior [lineman] Dean Griffing, who’s our preseason all-American.”
Sokol said Griffing can and will play end or tackle.
“In one-on-one situations, he’s been pretty difficult for our O-linemen to block,” the coach insisted. “He’s an incredibly tough individual. Throughout his career, he’s played through some significant injuries and played through pain. He’s another captain and the guys on the team really look up to him. He’s definitely a vocal leader and a leader by example.”
Two other linemen figuring to start are junior Josh Sonneberger (6-1, 215) at end or tackle and senior D.J. Lawson (6-0, 225) at end.
“The nose tackle has been a pretty open competition,” Sokol added. “Sophomore Mike Laritz [6-1, 220] has a good chance to win the job. Freshman Andrew Okruch [6-2, 305] is a big kid from Kentucky who was an all-state shot putter. He’s just a big, powerful kid. He’s very hard to move. We expect him to make a pretty significant contribution as well.”
Senior linebacker Craig Voges (6-0, 190) is back after being the team’s third-leading tackler (75) last season. Sokol said he’s been moved from an outside linebacker/strong safety hybrid position to an inside linebacker this season.
The other inside linebacker will be either senior Cody Rivers (6-0, 200) or senior Chad Compton (6-2, 210).
“They’re different,” Sokol said of Rivers and Compton. “One guy is probably a little bit better against the pass and the other is probably a lttle more stout against the run but struggles in pass coverage a little bit. We might use them situationally at times.”
Also in the mix at inside linebacker is sophomore Andrew Schuelke (6-0, 205).
In the secondary, the Engineers start three safeties and two cornerbacks.
Senior strong safety T.J. Chin (5-10, 180) is back after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the second game and missing most of last season. Sophomore Antony Adamo (6-0, 185) is another strong safety mentioned by Sokol, while sophomore Chris Sander (5-10, 175, a former wide receiver) is penciled in at free safety.
“It feels like we’ve gotten a lot more athletic in the secondary,” Sokol said, adding that freshman Nate Jackson (6-0, 195) is “a very promising young player” who also will see time at safety.
Returning starting cornerbacks are junior Spencer Balash (5-10, 185) and sophomore Joe Woodley (5-10, 180). Former West Vigo High School standout John Burt (5-10, 170) also is in the mix, although Sokol said he’s been nursing a bad shoulder throughout camp.
Then Sokol subtly threw in the name of freshman Kevin Nowak (5-11, 180) as a cornerback. Asked if Nowak will likely start down the road after he gains more experience, the coach smiled and said, “he’ll probably be starting right away.”
Also worth noting is the absence of standout linebacker Grant DePalma. He transferred from Rose-Hulman to Western Michigan, where is continuing to play football this season. As a freshman last season, DePalma led the Engineers in tackles with 100.