Each week this fall, Andrew Rupcich and his teammates have been on an emotional roller coaster.
An All-American senior offensive lineman at NAIA Culver-Stockton College in Missouri, Rupcich has seen COVID-19 impact the team’s schedule in an unprecedented fashion --- a season opener postponed 24 hours before kickoff, back-to-back games in September, then four consecutive weeks off.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” said Rupcich, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound offensive tackle from McHenry West. “It gets really upsetting after a while, but most of us knew this is what it was going to be like.”
The scheduling issues led Rupcich to take advantage of an NAIA rule in which football players can compete in five games this fall, take a redshirt season and return next fall. For Rupcich, whose head coach, Tom Sallay, has spoken to NFL scouts about his talents, he will be a fifth-year senior in 2021. His hope is that playing an extra season will entice NFL scouts to take a long look at his game.
“My coach explained it as putting a piece of cake out there,” Rupcich said. “You put it out there and everybody’s going to want a piece of it. I’m just trying to build up as much film (for NFL scouts) as I can. The film is going to determine how I’ll get my chance.”
Rupcich, who saw the field as a freshman for the Wildcats, has been a mainstay at left tackle. Over the summer, he was named to two preseason All-America teams after helping Culver-Stockton rank seventh in the nation in passing offense a year ago.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “Our offensive line coach works with me on fixing up my stance a little more and repeating that perfect stance and also making sure my footwork is perfect.”
Rupcich said his biggest gains have come in “physicality” after competing in football, basketball and track and field in high school.
“Playing three sports, I didn’t always have time to hit the weight room,” he said. “When I got here, I just started building strength. It has directly correlated right onto the field.”
Despite missing out on the season opener, Rupcich and the Wildcats have posted a 1-1 record before enduring four consecutive postponements because of COVID-19 issues with opposing teams and the Wildcats.
Rupcich said he has not contracted the virus, but he has been quarantined twice because of fellow offensive linemen who have gotten sick.
“We got to play two games (last month) and we thought we were rolling,” he said. “We were looking good as a football team and as a school in limiting COVID. Inevitably, it all came on. We’ve had guys coming in, coming out.”
On Wednesday, Clarke University was forced to postpone its scheduled game with Culver-Stockton on Saturday because of contact tracing and cautionary quarantine procedures that were enacted at the Dubuque, Iowa, school. Instead, Culver-Stockton will travel to William Penn University in Iowa for a game Sunday.
The continuous schedule changes have forced Rupcich and his teammates to react quickly.
“When it first happened, most of us were mad,” he said. “As it’s gone on, we’ve adapted. You always want to think about your game and your preparation for that week. When it happens, now we go into conditioning mode.”
Rupcich said a postponement means players work out individually or in groups small enough that they can spread out on the field.
This season’s ups and downs are a contrast to last year, when Rupcich became a social media sensation for a 44-yard pass he threw in a game against Benedictine College of Kansas. The play was shared thousands of times and led to Rupcich winning the Piesman Trophy, a creation of SB Nation that has been awarded to linemen “who do un-lineman-like things.”
Even today, the play lives on, Rupcich said.
“The guys that still talk about it are the freshman coming in,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I saw that play!’ That’s their introduction to me. It brought a lot of notoriety to our school.”
Though the play, called “Gut” for Rupcich’s habit of rolling up his jersey to show off his midsection, has not been called this season, it was discussed when the Wildcats played Benedictine last month.
“Our coach asked, ‘If we call it, do you still know how to run it?’” Rupcich recalled. “I said, ‘Of course I do.’ I’m always ready for it.”
• Barry Bottino writes about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.