It was supposed to be a joke.
When a concerned Bellefonte staff gathered up their players after a Wednesday practice last season, following a key injury to an offensive lineman, they asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to switch positions. A single hand playfully shot up — from starting linebacker/fullback Stephen Kutches.
“Dead-honest, at first, it was a joke,” Kutches said, smiling after a recent practice. “Someone was like, ‘We need another guard.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, hey — I’ll do it!’”
A few minutes later, near the locker room, Kutches turned to an assistant coach and asked if he really needed a new offensive lineman. When the coach nodded, Kutches didn’t hesitate: “I told him I’ll do it. I ran a couple reps Thursday, and then I started Friday.”
Kutches, now a senior, played the rest of his junior season at offensive guard, taking the jersey number of the injured lineman — his identical twin brother, Garret — and failing to correct numerous PA announcers and newspaper reporters who hadn’t realized the change. The roster still read “Kutches” at offensive guard, after all. Stephen didn’t care.
“That’s how it goes with Steve,” Red Raiders coach Shanon Manning said. “That’s not important to him. He only wants the best for every player on this team.”
Kutches is now back at linebacker/fullback, and the coaches’ conversation on his switch from running back to lineman to running back was a pretty short one. They told him over winter it would be best for him to return to fullback; Kutches said that was fine. And that was that.
“As much of a pain as he is to work with,” lineman Jacob Frey said, smiling and speaking loudly near Kutches, “he’s a pretty good lineman. He’s strong, his technique’s good, he’s aggressive, and he’s an all-around good athlete. And he’s just OK at chess.”
Kutches shot back: “I checkmated you in three moves!”
Kutches, a 5-foot-11 and 194-pound athlete, is one of the heartbeats on this team. During a recent practice, Manning’s voice carried over the chirping crickets and didn’t let up for 90 minutes straight: “We need Friday night urgency, not Monday night practice urgency!”, “No, no, no!”, “Let’s go!” He offered bits of instruction to every player within earshot, but he never once had to correct Kutches.
At one point, he even pulled a blocker aside after he missed his assignment on Kutches: “You can’t be thinking, ‘It’s Steve Kutches; I’m (pooping) my pants!”
Kutches is a blue-collar player, one who wakes up during the summer for a 7:15 a.m. landscaping job and takes instruction with a nod. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He offers advice to the younger players, sometimes pulling them aside before the coaches and telling them when they need to pick it up.
“Steve’s a good guy, and he’s a good leader,” center Cam Stephens said. “He really pushes us all, and he wants to best out of all of us.”
Kutches is willing to do anything for his team — and that’s not lost on the Red Raiders. When they needed him at offensive guard last season, he started two days after his brief conversation about the switch. For two weeks, he needed to ask the tackle aside of him about every assignment — but he never asked to move back, to take the easier route. And he then served as an above-average lineman and one of the county’s top linebackers.
There is one position he refuses to play, however. Just one. Quarterback.
“He couldn’t hit anyone,” his brother explained.
Kutches is the starting linebacker and fullback this year, and there’ll be a few one-running back sets where he’s the bell-cow. Manning hasn’t ruled out moving him to offensive line — if the team needs — but, right now, the team is better served with him elsewhere.
The senior boasts a football mind, his coach said, and with the Red Raiders’ nuanced offense, it’s best to have Kutches paving the way for tailback Dexter Gallishaw. Or carrying the rock on his own and powering forward for three yards a time.
But, if that changes in 2017, Kutches is ready. He’ll play just about any position, as long as the team needs it.
“I have a mentality,” Kutches said. “I can’t stand people being better than me. I want to be the best — not in a cocky way, but I want to be really good.
“And I just want to play. No position’s more fun for me. I just like to play.”
Bellefonte 2017 Football Schedule
Fri., Aug. 25: at Jersey Shore, 7 p.m. (at Thompson Street Stadium)
Fri., Sept. 1: vs. Huntingdon Area, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 8: at Philipsburg-Osceola, 7 p.m. (at Memorial Field)
Fri., Sept. 15: vs. Central Mountain, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 22: vs. Tyrone Area, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 29: vs. Clearfield Area, 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 6: vs. Penns Valley, 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 13: at Central, 7 p.m. (at Roaring Spring Football Field)
Fri., Oct. 20: at Chestnut Ridge, 7 p.m. (at Chestnut Ridge HS)
Fri., Oct. 27: at Bald Eagle Area, 7 p.m. (at Alumni Stadium)