Despite spending a year away from football, Tyrice Rock of Century High School seemingly hasn't missed a beat, and is having a season that most players only dream about.
The senior Knight leads Carroll County in rushing attempts and yardage, and his 20 touchdowns far outdistance the current runner-up, Westminster wide receiver Garrett Bean. He has exceeded the 100-yard rushing mark in six of Century's seven games, and has gone for more than 200 yards four times.
Even with a tough performance Friday against Westminster, Rock still has a chance to break the all-time Carroll records for rushing yardage and touchdowns.
Those are impressive milestones for any player, but especially for one with limited offensive experience.
In his sophomore year, Rock began his varsity career as a defensive back. In the 2010 season finale, he rushed for more than 200 yards in a victory over Francis Scott Key, and it seemed that he might start his junior campaign in the offensive backfield.
But there was no junior season for Rock. The Sykesville resident was academically ineligible to play for the Knights last fall, and football would have to wait.
During his junior year, Rock worked hard to improve his grades. He also took up rugby and enrolled in a dance class at Maryland Dance Energy in Eldersburg — two activities that would make him a better football player a year later.
"Dance really helped with my footwork, and taught me to take more precise steps when I'm running with the ball," Rock said.
"I knew that I had to come back fully focused," he said. "I needed to have my head on straight with both academics and football."
While he was away from the gridiron, Rock learned the value of applying himself in the classroom.
"Academically, things are better for me," he said. "I was always a person who did the bare minimum (in school), and looking back now I shouldn't have done that."
After a year, Rock showed progress in the classroom, and Century head coach Jim Holzman welcomed him back.
"I wasn't sure what to expect from him this year," Holzman said. "I thought Tyrice would help us, but not as much as he has."
But no one expected this kind of production from a player who hadn't suited up since November 2010. Midway through the first quarter of Century's recent 28-25 victory over Manchester Valley, Rock broke the Century single-season rushing record previously set by Cory Anderlik in 2008.
Rock, who gained 141 yards on a career-high 34 carries against the Mavericks, had rushed for 1,329 yards in seven games going into this weekend.
He enters Century's final contests with an excellent shot to break the county rushing record of 1,819 yards, set by Liberty's Calvin Stacy in 1998.
His 20 touchdowns also put Rock in position to set a new county single-season scoring record.
"I never expected to break any records," said Rock, who also played lacrosse for the Knights. "I just wanted to play well enough to get looks from colleges. My dad (Troy Rock) played sports in high school and broke records, and I wanted to be like him. He always said that I could do it, but I didn't think I could. He told me that the word 'can't' should not be in my vocabulary."
Today, Holzman believes that Rock's presence is invaluable to the Knights.
"He's our go-to guy," Holzman said. "He can run in between the tackles, and he can run outside. Tyrice can run with power and run with speed, and he is patient. He has all the good things you want in a running back. Plus, he's a good kid and he's very coachable, which goes a long way."
Rock, who also returns kickoffs for the Knights, is the first to admit that he's not doing it by himself. A sizable offensive line led by seniors Donnie Knox and Ryder Cavey has blocked well for the 5-8 Rock, who hits the hole quickly and uses his speed to get outside.
"With our line, we not only have size and strength but also technique," said Rock. "They are very strong on the fundamentals. I tell them before every game that if they block for me, I'll get the yards and the touchdowns and we'll win the game."
While Rock has picked up the lion's share of yardage, his backfield running mate, junior Mike Ashwell, has gained more than 500 yards in seven games. That's not a surprise to their offensive linemen.
"I expected to have a 1000-yard rusher and a backup running back that would run all over the field," said Knox, a four-year starter who lines up at offensive tackle and defensive end.
Cavey believes that Rock's off season experience with rugby enhanced his teammate's improvement as a football player.
"I think that really helped with his field vision," said Cavey, a three-year starter on the offensive and defensive lines. "Instead of just hitting the hole and trying to dart into the end zone, he's become a much more patient runner who waits for something to open up and uses his speed to accelerate past people. His agility and his footwork are unlike anyone that I've ever played with, and (that) sets him apart from any of the backs that we've played this season."
Rock also credits rugby for boosting his conditioning during the time he was away from his favorite sport.
"I had to stay in shape," Rock said. "Rugby helped me improve my quickness and my vision, and since there are no blockers in rugby I learned to look for the seams where I could run.
"To score in rugby, I had to make one move inside and then go outside, and the majority of my touchdowns have come because of that technique."
Rock's production is a main reason that the Knights are averaging 30 points per game. That output eases the pressure on Century's defensive.
"Even in our practices, Tyrice is really hard to tackle," said senior middle linebacker Matt Pluta, who had a key fourth-quarter interception against Manchester Valley. "He gets to the top speed so quickly. He'll break through any arm tackles, and then dart outside and outrun anybody."
Rock knows that the records are there for the taking, but his main goal is leading Century to the playoffs.
The Knights reached the Class 2A state semifinals in 2008, and followed with a second consecutive county title and regional playoff appearance the next year. But Century lost to South Carroll in a 2009 first-round playoff game, and missed the postseason the last two years.
"If we keep playing the way we are now, we will have a shot," Rock said. "I believe that we'll make it, because we're all united and have good chemistry as a team."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun