When the lights kick on next Friday at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, it will be the first showcase of the new Rock football team. The fall marked what seems like the closing of a chapter for The Rock football program. The 2021 senior class left with more accolades than any class before them, but with that, went a large chunk of the coaching staff too.
Ever since the playoff loss against Notre Dame College, coach Shawn Lutz has been working nonstop to fill holes on the field and on his staff. Many holes were left, from three of the best receivers in the nation graduating to offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer leaving for another coaching position. Lutz has had his hands full. But with the losses, also comes many additions.
With these additions, spring practices have been all about finding what the strengths and weaknesses of the team are at this point. Lutz and his staff have been looking to find what needs they have.
“Our goal for the spring is to find out who our two deep is going to be, at least coming out of spring, and then find out what our needs are to see if we need to address anything else,” Lutz said. “We lost 16 seniors, some of the best players ever to play here, and it’s really just trying to find out who these guys are going to be.”
As Henry Litwin is hoping to receive a call from an NFL team here in a few weeks, Kyle Sheets is now looking to take the next step on the field. Last season, Sheets was surrounded by the likes of Litwin, Jermaine Wynn Jr., and Cinque Sweeting. Now, that group is gone, and Sheets is looking to mesh with a receiver group.
“Kyle has got to be one of the guys, he’s going to have to be one of the veteran receivers, and he was underutilized because we had the other three guys,” Lutz said. “I expect him to be the go-to guy this year, and he’s got to step up and he’s done a good job so far.”
Sheets will be playing with two transfer receivers, Jacob Odom and Cohen Russell. They come in with a lot of experience under their belt, but will have the task of taking the spots of players who will be getting some looks from NFL teams.
“[Jacob Odom and Cohen Russell] have the task of taking the spots of Henry Litwin, Jermaine Wynn Jr., and Cinque Sweeting, and that’s hard to do because they’re some of the best to ever play here,” Lutz said. “Cohen is going to add the slot position and will add some returning, while being the fastest guy on the field and Jacob is the same way, they have some experience of playing football and they’re going to have to fit in and be impact guys right away, and I think they can.”
The group will be catching passes from Noah Grover, who this offseason has proved himself to be one of the best leaders that Lutz has seen during his time here. Grover has been balancing school, a new organization based in sports and faith and the duties of being The Rock’s quarterback. To Lutz, having a player like him helps make things easier, but having Brayden Long behind him helps solidify the position.
“You’re not going to find a better leader [than Noah], he has a 4.0 GPA in engineering, and he does a lot of stuff from a spiritual standpoint with the Team Rock group,” Lutz said. “He’s a leader in all aspects, he’s probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around with the things that he does and the things that he’s about.”
On the defensive end, Lutz has been paying very close attention to each position, but in particular he’s been keeping an eye on the linebacker position. With Tim Vernick leaving, a major hole was left.
In the past, Lutz said that he wanted to address it, and he did so by moving incoming transfer Kameron Kruzelyak from tight end to linebacker. But this spring will be important in showing him whether or not he needs to make any more moves there.
“We’re seeing how the spring goes, we’ve got a kid from West Liberty [University], who played a little bit of tight end that we moved to linebacker, and this kid is really active and really athletic,” Lutz said. “So, we’ve just got to see how Cody Ross, Devyn Clair and everyone else do, because it’s going to be our biggest question mark position as of right now.”
The biggest concern as of now is getting all the new pieces to fit together. In the early going, Lutz has acknowledged that it’s going to be a process, but it’s one that he’s excited about.
“We lost a of guys, so it’s [new] guys being able to do their jobs and players getting comfortable with them, and we’ve got a lot of question marks because we’ve got new staff and a lot of new players,” Lutz said. “The expectation is starting all over again, which I love, because we haven’t done anything and we’re starting from scratch, but expectations are always high here.”
The expectations have almost risen for this group in a way. The spring has been about introducing a lot of players into the process of Rock football but, as Lutz loves to point out, in this program doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.
The hardest part is just figuring out how to move on without guys who made history here. As Henry Litwin and Cinque Sweeting sit and wait to receive a call here in the next few weeks, The Rock football program will be prepping for their annual Green & White Spring Game.
The Green & White game will have a different vibe than in the past. The Rock may have made the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) title game the past three seasons, but now that means nothing. Those accomplishments are out the window and it’s time for a fresh start.
The biggest goal for Lutz, however, is just to get out of next Friday’s game healthy.
“I just want to get out of there healthy at that point, to be honest with you,” Lutz said. “But when it’s the last game going into the summer, I just pray that everyone stays healthy, because at the end of the day we’re still 0-0.”
This spring begins what Lutz considers to be a new era of play for The Rock football team. The past will be remembered, but the goal ahead has nothing to do with it. When things are all said and done, every team in the PSAC is aiming to take down The Rock, and it’s something that the team hopes to be prepared for.
“I really do think [that this is a new era], we can’t talk that we’re one of the top programs in Division II football, because the 2022 football team wants to make their mark, the foundation is laid and the tradition is there, but it’s totally different with new players and a new staff,” Lutz said. “But everyone is gunning for you and it’s going to be tough, but we’re ready for the challenge.”