How this ‘soccer kid’ from London hopes to solidify Utah State’s backcourt
RJ Eytle-Rock transferred from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to Utah State and is already taking people by surprise
LOGAN — While he hasn’t had an opportunity to catch many people by surprise with his playing ability just yet, new Utah State guard RJ Eytle-Rock does admit that he’s caught a few people off guard with his country of origin since arriving in Cache Valley about a month ago.
“It’s usually not until they hear my accent, and then they’re like, ‘Where are you from?’ And then I tell them,” explained Eytle-Rock, who was raised in South London. “But even from when I first came out here, I feel like I’m losing my accent a little bit.”
In fact, Eytle-Rock’s British accent is barely discernible when providing short answers to questions. But the longer he elaborates, the more obvious it becomes, even while clearly making a concerted effort to adjust to life in the United States by referring to his first favorite sport as “soccer” rather than “football.”
“I was a soccer kid,” he proclaimed. “That’s the first sport everyone plays over there, so I played that way before basketball and played until I was about 15 years old.”
An Arsenal F.C. fan, Eytle-Rock said “I was very, very upset when we lost,” referring to England’s recent loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
The same can be said of the last organized basketball game Eytle-Rock played in.
Back on March 3, Eytle-Rock was a junior guard at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County when the Retrievers — the top-seeded team in the America East Tournament — blew a 12-point halftime lead on its way to a 79-77 loss to UMass Lowell.
Eytle-Rock scored a team-high 18 points in the setback that abruptly ended UMBC’s season with a 14-6 record.
“That was a good year until the very end,” Eytle-Rock recalled. “It was a good team. We had good team chemistry, on and off the court, with the coaching staff and the players. It was a good balance of everything.”
Change of plans
Eytle-Rock didn’t know it at the time, but that balance would suddenly be upset a month later when his coach, Ryan Odom, was hired as the new head coach at Utah State. About five days after Odom’s departure, Eytle-Rock added his name to the long list of available players in the NCAA’s transfer portal because he didn’t know anything about UMBC’s new coach and “I just wanted to see what other options there were.”
He says he ended up being contacted by several schools, including Florida Gulf Coast, Bradley and Southern Illinois, but then Eytle-Rock’s former Retrievers teammate, Brandon Horvath, reached out to let him know that he was going to join Odom at USU for his final collegiate season. Odom had similarly contacted Eytle-Rock about coming to Utah State, and a couple of days after Horvath, he also announced he would be transferring to Utah State.
“I had done pretty well under coach Odom, so why change up now going into my senior year? I might as well just stick with what I know,” Eytle-Rock replied when asked about his decision to head west. “I was happy at UMBC, and I was happy with coach Odom and so there was really no need to change it. I’m just comfortable with him. I like how he coaches. He trusts me, and I trust him.”
Eytle-Rock’s journey from London to Logan is certainly a long and unusual one.
The son of Ruth Eytle and Rodney Rock, Eytle-Rock says he primarily picked up basketball thanks to his mother, who played in college and ended up coaching a variety of teams around South London. Ruth’s son prepped at a notable secondary school by the name of Barking Abbey, and RJ just happened to play pretty well when Odom dropped by to scout his teammate, Daniel Akin. A year older than Eytle-Rock, Akin ended up signing with UMBC, and the two Brits ended up playing together a couple of years in Baltimore.
Across the pond
While Eytle-Rock normally went home to England each summer, that annual stay ended up being about five months long in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. With no access to a gym, Eytle-Rock says he had to try to maintain his conditioning by simply running in a nearby park.
“It was difficult,” said Eytle-Rock, who quarantined with his mother and sister from March until he was able to return to Baltimore in August. “I felt like we had it worse than you guys in America. We didn’t have anything open. No shopping malls, no restaurant. It was literally locked down.
“I could go shoot on some outside courts, but they’re not that good and you couldn’t play with anyone. They would have people walking around and literally making sure that you were playing by yourself. It was that strict in London. It was tough.” — RJ Eytle-Rock on trying to keep game sharp in London during pandemic
“I could go shoot on some outside courts, but they’re not that good and you couldn’t play with anyone. They would have people walking around and literally making sure that you were playing by yourself. It was that strict in London. It was tough.”
Eytle-Rock says things were much better in London this year, to the point that some restrictions were eased back during his visit, allowing him to visit his grandmother and eat inside a restaurant. Of course, coming back to America from the U.K. now requires an additional five hours or so of travel time, but he made it to Logan for the first time in June after nearly missing his connecting flight in Chicago.
“I like it here, but it’s very different,” he said. “It’s very different to what I’m used to. Obviously, London is very fast-paced, city life, and there’s a lot of stuff going on around you. I feel like things here are a bit more slowed down and like people just take their time more.”
Believed to be the first Aggie basketball player from the U.K., Eytle-Rock brings a lot of experience and size to USU’s perimeter. Although he played primarily point guard at UMBC, Eytle-Rock spent a lot of time at shooting guard last season when 5-foot-2 Darnell Rogers emerged as a playmaker. With Steven Ashworth, USU’s backup point guard the majority of 2020-21, and Utah transfer Rylan Jones in the mix at the point, it appears likely that Eytle-Rock will fill a variety of roles for the Aggies this coming season.
“Obviously we lost Rollie (Worster), and we lost Marco (Anthony) — two good players for this program,” Odom said of the two guards who joined former head coach Craig Smith at the University of Utah. “They were different. One was more of a pure point guard and tough player (Worster), while the other was more of the ballhandler, defender guy for the team (Anthony).
“And RJ’s a combination of the two. He’s not quite as athletic as Marco, but he can defend really well, he can play the point guard position and handle the ball and also pick and roll, which he did for me a ton.”
When asked to describe his game, Eytle-Rock said, “I play both ends of the floor. I take pride in defense, and I often guard the other team’s best player.”
“You’ll also see me attacking the basket pretty well and getting fouled,” he added. “And you’ll see me being a good leader and getting the crowd excited. I’ve heard the Spectrum gets pretty hyped, so I’m looking forward to that.”
While the Aggies played in front of about 1,600 fans in 2020-21 at the Spectrum, the Retrievers didn’t have fans in the stands for any of their games last season. Still, Eytle-Rock led UMBC in scoring (14.3 ppg), while shooting 47.4% from the field and knocking down 22 of 55 3-point attempts. He also averaged 2.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game on his way to be named a first-team All-America East selection along with Horvath (13.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg).
A senior last year, Horvath will play just one season at Utah State, while Eytle-Rock, with the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, could play two years for the Aggies.
Big Dance dreamin’
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” he replied when asked how long he expects to be at USU. “I don’t know yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But so far, Eytle-Rock said he likes Logan, especially the scenery, loved his trip to Bear Lake and has found a coveted eating establishment in Mo’ Bettah’s Hawaiian-style food. However, his focus is getting to the NCAA Tournament, something he has yet to do in his career, as he was playing at a prep school in New Jersey when Odom and the 16th-seeded Retrievers pulled off an upset of top-seeded Virginia on March 16, 2018.
Eytle-Rock, who watched that game on his phone in a car, hoped to get the Retrievers back to the Big Dance, but UMBC only managed to get as close as the championship game of the American East tournament his freshman year.
“I have yet to make the NCAA Tournament, but I really feel like this is my chance to do that,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a good group of guys, a good team, and a good staff around us. … They’re all great guys, on and off the court. The leaders of the group right now are Brock (Miller) and Justin (Bean), and they know the Aggie way. But I feel like we all help each other’s game; everyone brings something different.”
Coming from the U.K. and then the East Coast, Eytle-Rock said he wasn’t very familiar with Utah State or the Mountain West Conference. But he did get to see the Aggies briefly two years ago when both UMBC and USU played at the same tournament in Jamaica.
“They looked good,” he said, then adds with a little laugh. “But I never thought I’d end up with them.”