Rochester football preview: More confident Zebras seek to expand depth
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
After enjoying some wins, the confidence within the Rochester football team has grown.
The Zebras ran a wing-T offense and a four-man front defense and rebounded from a winless season in 2020 with a 5-3 record in 2021.
First-team all-Three Rivers Conference running back Alex Deming and all-TRC offensive lineman Austin Rogers are both back. Honorable mention all-TRC two-way lineman Brady Beck and honorable mention all-TRC linebacker Eli Swango are also back.
Starting quarterback Aaron Swango is also back, and other veterans include Payton Luhnow, Gavin McKee and Hunter Shriver.
The players went to Manchester University for a team camp during the third week in June for the second straight year. This time, though, they had already gone through their offseason workouts.
So while last year’s trip might have been about installing the new offense and defense, this year’s trip was more about expanding the roster and “refining a few more things,” according to second-year coach Ron Shaffer.
Some confidence has replaced the uncertainty.
“I’d say it’s pretty high,” Shaffer said when asked about the team’s confidence level. “They’re excited about getting ready to hit somebody else already. We went and scrimmaged West Lafayette and South Putnam, two very good teams. We scrimmaged North Judson here along with Caston. North Judson is going to be dynamite too, and our kids handled the situation. We didn’t get ran over. They competed, and we got through the night with confidence each time. They’re feeling like they understand the offense and the defense. So when you have that understanding of what you’re supposed to do, there’s a confidence that comes, and you can just perform, and that’s what we’re seeing right now at this stage in the season already.”
Shaffer has said that he wants more one-way players, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. Beck is the only lineman slated to start both ways when the Zebras open the season at 7 p.m. Friday at home against Southwood.
“We were able to learn more about ourselves as far as developing depth,” Shaffer said. “We were able to come away from Manchester and put together a pretty good depth chart of players and let guys know where they stand as far as ones or twos or threes even. It was a good bonding experience, but mainly, we were able to figure ourselves out a little bit more instead of finding our way like we were last year.”
They might need the depth because the schedule figures to be more difficult.
Assuming there are no coronavirus-related schedule pauses or any other interruptions, the Zebras will add Tippecanoe Valley and Peru back to their schedule, and those teams went a combined 18-4 last year. Rochester lost to Valley and Peru by a combined score of 82-7 in 2020 when they last played.
Shaffer said that Aaron Swango, a senior, has a greater command of the offense and said that his teammates look up to him.
“Even though in stature, he’s the shortest guy in the huddle, they look up to him for guidance and direction and that tempo that you set as far as how you attack every play,” Shaffer said. “You’re going to hear this probably all year, but he’s doing exactly what we want him to do … control the huddle and control the vibe of what is going on in the huddle.”
If something were to happen to Aaron Swango, sophomore Owen Prater and freshman Carson Paulik are the back-ups. Paulik got snaps during the JV portion of the scrimmage against Winamac Friday.
Deming ran for 1,589 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore last year. Deming ran track in the spring, and Shaffer hopes to see the benefits in football.
“I’d like him to get faster,” Shaffer said when asked how he’d like to see Deming improve. “He’s a 5.0 40 guy. We always want him to push to get faster. We want him to just visually see things better, and he has developed that part of his game. … His game mainly relies on his ability to hit the hole hard and make the first guy miss the tackle, so he gets a lot of yards after first contact and keeps his legs churning. But we’d really like to see him break away when he breaks away and always score.”
Payton Luhnow, Colton Ferverda, Gavin McKee and freshman Brant Beck could all see time at the wingback position. Luhnow was the most productive of that group in 2021, rushing for 453 yards and six touchdowns on 8.4 yards per carry.
Peyton Young, a junior, will take over at right guard for the graduated Marshall Fishback. Sophomore Xavier Vance will be among those competing for the starting left tackle spot. Brady Beck will return at left guard, Rogers is back at center, and Hunter Shriver will start at right tackle.
Junior Rosswel Zeiger and freshman Mason Hisey are also getting looks on the offensive line.
“The only guy that really has to go both ways this year will be Brady Beck,” Shaffer said. “Austin will just play center. Peyton Young will just play guard. Hunter Shriver playing tackle. Xavier playing left tackle. We’re trying to two-platoon a little bit more this year and get a little more out of our guys. … We put in a good summer. … The weight room was good for some guys. They’ve really developed into football players.”
Deming will move from linebacker to defensive end, and senior Ethan Brock will play the other end. Brady Beck will be one defensive tackle with Colin Weiand playing more on the nose.
Shriver and Colin Weiand could also figure into the defensive tackle mix.
Alex Griggs will be a back-up at end.
Shaffer said he thinks Deming will be more of a factor with his hand on the ground and moving closer to the ball at the snap.
“We lose Marshall Fishback, and he’s just a rock for you in there, so we can’t replace him, but we feel like we have better overall defensive line than we did last year with guys going one way,” Shaffer said. “They’re practicing it, and we’re getting a lot of technique work.”
Eli Swango will be “the guy that runs that defense” from his middle linebacker spot. McKee will play strong-side linebacker – “SAM” in football parlance – and Ethan Amezquita, Wesley Meadows and Owen Prater could factor into the weak-side linebacker, or “WILL” spot.
Senior Hunter Campbell and juniors Gavin Young and Dylan Hook will compete for two starting cornerback spots. Campbell is a newcomer to football, and Young is back after choosing not to play last year.
Brant Beck and Colton Ferverda will play safety. D.J. Basham had been competing for time there, but he broke his ankle in the scrimmage against Winamac and is currently out. Aaron Swango is a back-up.
“The progression was really good last year, and what was nice was we came in and we didn’t lose that progression,” Shaffer said of the secondary. “We’re where we were at when we ended the season, and now we can move forward.”
Parker Wallace and Mitchell Shafer are both members of the soccer team and could see time at placekicker.
“They’ll both kick for us situationally,” Shaffer said.
Alex Griggs and Colton Ferverda will share punting duties.
Luhnow, Hook, Campbell, Brant Beck and Basham, once he’s healthy, will return kickoffs and punts.
Eric Davis, who was the head coach at Tri-County last year, has joined the staff as an assistant. Nate Basham, Ken Hughes, Deric Beck, Bryce Roberts and Isaac Shaffer will also help out.
“I guess I’m way more at ease with my staff this year because they know what I expect,” Shaffer said. “I find myself getting to watch practice more and evaluate kids versus doing as much coaching. They’re doing a lot of coaching.
“Same headaches of certain things that go on, but I’m still enjoying it. It’s a good time, and I’ve got great kids to coach.”
Aug. 19 – vs. Southwood, 7 p.m.
Aug. 26 – at Knox, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 – vs. Whitko, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 – at Wabash, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 – at Tippecanoe Valley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23 – vs. Peru, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 – at Northfield, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 – vs. North Miami, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 – at Maconaquah, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 – Class 2A, Sectional 34 quarterfinal
Class 2A, Sectional 34
Lafayette Central Catholic
The Rochester football team will open its season with a Three Rivers Conference home game against Southwood at 7 p.m. Friday.