Each year, a new class of football players is introduced to The Rock on National Signing Day, which took place on Feb. 1 this year. Every time, it is easy to see the excitement in head coach Shawn Lutz’s eyes. This year, that gleam seems to be brighter than it ever has been.
“I’m really happy to get the five mid-year kids here in the spring and to get the recruiting class we got,” Lutz said. “I think it’s the best class we’ve got here while I’ve been the head coach.”
The Rock is coming off yet another NCAA playoff appearance, but the season did not play out as they had hoped. Slippery Rock seemed poised for another PSAC title game appearance, but their midseason battle with Indiana (Pa.) thwarted any hope of making it back there.
Still, The Rock’s odd year was one that many teams yearn for. For Lutz, it was just another year, and their goals were not met.
As soon as the season concluded, Lutz was on the trail going to recruit players. There were quite a few holes to fill. The team saw many veteran leaders play their last game in the playoff loss against Shepherd.
The Rock was able to grab four defensive linemen, the first of which is Sherman Hatton, who transferred from Marshall University. The Rock also had another defensive line transfer join on signing day. Aeden Holler comes from Kent State University.
Hatton and Holler will come in looking to fill the shoes of Jeff Marx, who was one of the older players on the team last fall. His experience will be hard to replace, but Lutz and Co. hope that Hatton and Holler can be big pieces of the defense.
Daniel Long and Brian Young Jr. are two added freshman assets.
The Rock also brought in six linebackers. Lutz got the most out of his defense this past season, and the linebackers’ play on the field was a huge part of that.
Brandon Bischof came onto the scene and delivered the impact play needed for the team to have any chance against the PSAC offenses. Now, the task is to replace him.
“I like our linebacking core because to lose Tuck-Hayden and Bischof and gain a guy like Andrew Vince who has a lot of length and another guy like Kudla who was a two-time captain at a division II school,” Lutz said. “So, I’m excited to add them.”
Kyle Kudla has one year of eligibility left, and Vince is left with three after coming in from Rutgers University. Both will immediately look to fill big shoes.
The Rock also brought in two Pennsylvania state champions for the linebacker position: Will Hartung and Max Heckert. Lutz was drawn to their championship-caliber play.
“I think our linebacking core is the strongest position that we added to; we got Will Hartung and Max Heckert [from state title teams],” Lutz said. “We also got a stud out of Ohio in Jacob Snow, and I’m really excited to see what they’re going to add to the table.”
From the defensive back position, the team lost big names and key players. Over the past two years, the defensive back position has been in lockdown, but changes will come this season, including new players like Benjamin Lane.
Lane was a great player on both sides of the ball. In his senior season of high school, he rushed for 1,100 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. On the defensive side, he recorded 72 tackles and snagged two interceptions. For Lutz, it is great to know that he has a player like Lane who can do it all.
“He was a great running back, but he can play anywhere we want him to on defense,” Lutz said. “He loves to hit, and we might even start him at the safety position.”
On the other side, The Rock brought in one more quarterback, Brad Hoffman, to compete with Brayden Long.
“It’s really exciting because Brayden has worked patiently, and he got some starting experience against Kutztown [University], and he’s been waiting his time,” Lutz said. “He’ll compete with [Hoffman and others], but he’s in the lead for that job right now.”
The offense also received new weapons. While Kyle Sheets, Cohen Russell and Jacob Odom will return, the team will also have a few incoming freshmen to work with—the first of which is a kid right from their own backyard. John Sabo played football right across the street at Slippery Rock Area High School, where he had many career milestones.
Sabo finished his high school career in Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, and now he will play college football on that same field.
“We try to get the best guys in our area, we never want to lose them, and we felt like he was one of the best,” Lutz said. “His father was an All-American, and I like that, but it’s all about John. He’s just a guy that has so many physical attributes, and he just has to develop.”
Lutz’s biggest goal this offseason was to do what he always wants to: reload, not rebuild. This time around, he was able to do that by grabbing guys from close to home. He was able to get Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) and District 10 players who have been on their boards for a while.
“We got everyone on the top of our boards,” Lutz said. “We didn’t lose anyone to anybody.”