Kyle Lauletta has never started a college football game. That should change this September, though, when the University of Richmond's new starting quarterback leads his team against the University of Maryland on September 5.
Lauletta will not just face the difficulty of overcoming a three-year starting gap, but also playing against Maryland, a powerful Big-10 program that recruited him but ultimately backed off and dropped him.
“There’s a difference between starting and coming in as relief," offensive coordinator Charlie Fisher said. "I think the biggest challenge for any quarterback is when they first take over. It’s just different than coming in games. There’s no substitute for experience.”
Though Lauletta lacks starting experience at the collegiate level, wide receiver and friend Brian Brown has confidence in his ability.
“I think we can make the playoffs with him,” he said. “I know he’s smart. He’s really in tune with the playbook, so I know he can do it.”
Growing up with football
Although Lauletta is a rare talent, within his family he is just one of many. His father and uncle played at the Naval Academy, his grandfather played at Delaware and his older brother played quarterback for Bucknell. Naturally, Lauletta played football from an early age, starting flag football when he was five.
He did not play quarterback, though, until his freshman year in high school.
Lauletta comes from a great high school football program in Pennsylvania called Downingtown East, Fisher said. Lauletta started for two years, earning league MVP his senior year and totaling 5,243 yards and 64 touchdowns during his two years as a starter.
Downingtown East went 19-2 and won two league titles under Lauletta’s reign.
“Football was huge at Downingtown East,” said Scott Schier, a Richmond senior who went to high school with Lauletta. “The student section was insane and we were really good for the majority of the four years that I was there. I think a large part of that was due to Kyle and the dynamic offense.”
Multiple schools recruited Lauletta, but he eventually landed on Richmond, because of the connection he developed with head coach Danny Rocco. “I’ve loved Coach Rocco ever since I met him,” Lauletta said.
Redshirting—as a sophomore
Lauletta saw limited action as a freshman, which is common for college quarterbacks. During the four games he played, however, he threw for 108 yards and completed 16 of 21 passes.
In 2014, Lauletta’s path to becoming the expected starting quarterback became less conventional. As part of a long-term plan, Rocco redshirted Lauletta for his sophomore year.
Rocco’s nephew, quarterback Mike Rocco, had transferred from the University of Virginia and was ineligible to play during Lauletta’s freshman year, making Lauletta the backup quarterback to starter Michael Strauss. In Lauletta’s sophomore year, when Rocco regained eligibility, Lauletta was redshirted, saving him a year of eligibility. The plan, however, was made clear to Lauletta during the recruiting cycle, so he was ready for the decision.
“I think it’s a good thing when they can redshirt, particularly quarterbacks, it just helps them,” Fisher said. “It helps their growth, it helps their development, they’re not throwing (sic) in there before they’re ready.”
Although Lauletta did not play in games his sophomore year, he used the time to learn from the two skilled and experienced quarterbacks playing ahead of him. Lauletta had a self-described “great” relationship with quarterbacks Strauss and Rocco.
“Strauss had always been hard on me since day one,” Lauletta said. “He knew I was going to be the quarterback eventually. We’ve always had a great relationship.
“And [Rocco] taught me a lot of off-the-field stuff and how to handle certain situations ... I definitely learned a lot from the both of them.”
Strauss, last season’s starter, described Lauletta as a hard worker, keen on asking questions and learning everything he could from him.
“He would ask me a lot of questions,” Strauss said. “He used to be very vocal in games. We used to talk back and forth a lot about things.”
After two years of waiting, watching and learning, Lauletta’s time to lead the offense had come. Yet, just as his time arrived, the circumstances surrounding his new role seemed less than desirable.
Adjusting to coaches
Richmond has had three offensive coordinators during Lauletta’s two years at Richmond, an unlikely and untimely circumstance for a new quarterback. Lauletta first worked with Coach Brandon Streeter, who, along with Rocco, recruited Lauletta. Lauletta was actually the first quarterback the coaching duo had recruited for the University of Richmond, after both coaches had left Liberty University after nine seasons, Lauletta said.
Streeter ran a predominately spread or westcoast-style offense, characterized by its pass-heavy offensive approach, Lauletta said. Under Streeter’s lead, Richmond’s offense broke nearly every program passing record in the 2014 season.
Although Lauletta said his skill-set had matched nicely with Streeter’s offensive style, and the two had a great relationship—Streeter had visted Lauletta’s house multiple times during the recruiting process–Lauletta would never have the opportunity to start as quarterback under him. In December 2014, Streeter left Richmond for a coaching job at his alma mater, Clemson University.
“I was a little bit upset when he left but I understand,” Lauletta said of Streeter. “That was his alma mater and I would have done the same thing in his situation.”
In January 2015, Steed Lobotzke, who spent 13 years at Wake Forest, was hired to lead the Spiders’ offense. Unfortunately for Kyle and the team, that relationship didn’t last long. Lobotzke coached at Richmond for about three weeks before leaving to coach at his alma mater Air Force Academy, according to Coach Rocco.
Lobotzke, who the team referred to as LoBo, “was all business,” Lauletta said. Lobotzke, who has worked with Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, wanted to implement an offense similar to the Eagles and Oregon University. His offense, which was completely different than anything the team had used before, was in the early stages of implementation when he left.
“It wasn’t hard making the transition from the second guy to the third guy because we hadn’t really done much that was set in stone,” Lauletta said of the transition between Lobotzke’s offense and current offensive coordinator Charlie Fisher.
Lauletta and the team had never received a playbook from coach Lobotzke.
“I almost felt more disappointed when the second coach left because he had kind of told us what his vision was and he seemed like he was all into our program and then he left,” Lauletta said. “I also understand why he left, because Air Force was his alma mater and he had a great coaching opportunity there.
“Everywhere you go coaches are going to be coming and going so you just got to, as a player, you have to adapt. You can only control what’s in your control… so I didn’t really worry about it too much."
Although he is new as Richmond’s offensive coordinator, Fisher built a relationship with Lauletta years before he became a coach at Richmond. Before coming to Richmond, Fisher served as the quarterback coach at Penn State, where he recruited Lauletta.
Lauletta, who said he wasn’t quite good enough to be the quarterback at Penn State, said he had talked to Fisher a few times and had known him for years before he came to Richmond. Fisher’s experiences at such a prestigious program excited Lauletta.
“Coach Fisher had been at Penn State when a kid named Matt McGloin played there. And Matt McGloin is now in the NFL,” Lauletta said. McGloin has started eight games for the Oakland Raiders in his two-year NFL career.
Lauletta described McGloin as a small, walk-on player who had not been known for having a strong arm, a skill-set he said was similar to his own.
“It’s encouraging to see a guy who doesn’t quite have the top-end arm strength make it and go to the NFL,” he said. “And Coach Fisher has proved that he can be successful with... not the big-time recruit or the big-name guy."
Fisher’s sentiment for Lauletta matched the young quarterback’s sentiment for his coach. “You always say you want your quarterbacks to be the hardest working guys on and off the field and he’s definitely that,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s offense, in many ways, differs from Streeter’s, especially with a greater emphasis on balancing the run and pass games. “The coaches have put an emphasis on being more balanced this year… and have similar run-pass numbers each game,” Lauletta said.
“It’s been very overwhelming and it’s stuff I really like,” Lauletta said. “…As a quarterback I feel more and more comfortable every day with the new stuff. It kind of feels like being a freshman again.”
In addition, Fisher’s pro-style offense relies heavily on its quarterback talking to the offense before the snap. Essentially, Lauletta is expected to play a role similar to that of an NFL quarterback, identifying the middle linebacker and setting the blocking scheme on every play, he said.
“Most colleges don’t do it and it’s something most NFL teams do,” he said. “It’s a very complex thing that is definitely more difficult. … The quarterback has the best eyes, by him doing it, it kind of puts the offense in the best position.”
Many of Streeter’s plays were highly wordy with a slight variation in a formation resulting in a different play entirely, Lauletta said. In Fisher’s offense, the terminology is much shorter, yet harder to remember. Not surprisingly, Lauletta has spent a great deal of time learning the offense.
“I’m confident that we will get there but it’s definitely a process and it’s going to take a lot of time,” Lauletta said. “Just being able to play and relax instead of me thinking about everything is probably what I’m most nervous about.”
Brown, Lauletta’s friend and receiver, has confidence in his quarterback.
“I think he had a good spring as far as learning a new offense,” he said. “I think he handled it well. He’s gonna do good.”
Lauletta has never been the type of guy to hang out with one person, fostering friendships with the younger players on the team as well as having a good relationship with all of his teammates, specifically the entire offense, he said.
Of all the close relationships he has fostered, Lauletta has formed a special relationship with Brown. Brown met while visiting Richmond in high school. “We’ve always had good chemistry and a good relationship," Lauletta said. “It makes my job easier as a quarterback when you have such a good group of receivers.”
Despite graduating 23 seniors last year, maintaining the progress made to this point is as important as ever, Lauletta said. “Everyone on our team expects and knows we’re good enough to make the playoffs,” he said.
Part of the role of quarterback is acting as a leader and Lauletta seems ready to take on that leadership role, even though he is young and has three years of eligibility remaining. “It’s cool knowing the coaches have confidence in you and especially your teammates because everybody knows just naturally the position of the quarterback, you assume a role of leadership that I’m very comfortable doing so,” he said.
“He’s great with his teammates, he’s [a] very hands on type of leader,” Fisher said. “I think he’s highly respected, he works hard and puts a lot of time into the position, both physically and probably most important mentally. So I think he’s very good, the players respect him, they respond to him on the field. Usually when they respond on the field, it’s good in the locker room or off the field.”
Rocco echoed Fisher’s statements regarding Lauletta’s leadership and his relationship with his teammates. “I think everybody respects Kyle,” he said. “They respect the fact that he is a team player. He’s not a selfish prima donna kind of an athlete and I think the players respond to that. He’s humble. I think that is a legitimate quality of a leader.”
Photos courtesy of RichmondSpiders.com
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