The calendar and the weather may say it’s late November, but for Jeremy Ruckert, it feels more like March.
Ruckert’s undefeated Ohio State team finds itself in a familiar spot for this time of the year: in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff. So to make sure he’s playing in that postseason tournament this winter, the Lindenhurst native and sophomore tight end is borrowing an approach from one that starts a few months later.
“We have a March Madness mentality where if you lose one game, you're out,” Ruckert said. “You don't come to play one game and that's all [for] your season. All the hopes and dreams of making the playoffs and getting further than that is out the window.”
The 10-0 Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 in the latest CFP rankings. They host No. 8 Penn State on Saturday, then play their annual rivalry game at No. 13 Michigan next week followed by a potential Big Ten Championship appearance on Dec. 7. A win in all three games and the Buckeyes likely would be in the playoff for the first time since 2017.
One loss could change all of that, though. Ruckert knows this first-hand. Last year, when Ruckert was a freshman, Ohio State’s blowout loss to Purdue essentially knocked them out of playoff contention despite taking home the Big Ten title. The year before that, the same situation happened, only Iowa was the one to dash the Buckeyes’ playoff dreams.
The best way to avoid that? Winning.
“We don't want to have to put it in the committee's hands or anybody else's hands,” Ruckert said. “We want to just do our thing and really just come to play every single day and not really worry about anything else.”
Ohio State has been getting it done so far. The Buckeyes’ offense is averaging an FBS-best 51.5 points per game behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Justin Fields, who has thrown for 31 touchdowns against just one interception while also rushing for 10 scores.
Ruckert and Fields first got close when they were top recruits and played together at The Opening in Oregon and other prospect camps. They kept building their relationship once Fields transferred to Columbus from Georgia.
“I think what people don't give him a lot of credit for is how smart he is as a player,” Ruckert said of Fields. “He'll really get into the meeting room and lock in, and really he just knows every situation on the field before it even happens and where to go with the ball and where not to. And I think that's just a testament to how well he's played and how smart he is with the football,
With just nine catches for 103 yards through 10 games, Ruckert hasn’t necessarily been a focal point in the high-powered Buckeyes offense. However, those limited opportunities have been impactful: three of those nine catches have been for touchdowns, including two in a season-opening win over Florida Atlantic.
“As long as we're doing our job in the run game, and in the pass protection game, it opens up a lot of things for the other guys that we have and the more dynamic guys,” he said of the Buckeyes’ tight end group. “And our mindset is, once we get the opportunity for the ball to come our way, we better make that play, and I've been fortunate to get a couple of those this year.”
Ruckert had just one catch for 13 yards in 12 games last year. He said trying to learn everything last year was “a lot of stress,” but it’s paying off now.
“I'm playing more freely, having fun and really just enhancing every single part of my game,” he said.
Ruckert is just two years removed from finishing up a very decorated career at Lindenhurst. The former co-Hansen Award winner is one of just four players to be a three-time Newsday All-Long Island football first-team selection, was a U.S. Army All-American and the New York State Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017, helping to lead the Bulldogs to their first Long Island Class I title as a senior.
His brother, Will, is a captain on this year’s team and had 11 tackles and a fumble recovery in the Bulldogs’ 23-0 semifinal win over Centereach last weekend. Ruckert says he’s kept tabs on his brother and former coaches and teammates, thanks to regular texts from his father.
“I got a chance to go back on my bye week to check out one of [Will’s] games,” Ruckert said. “The week before, he got a fumble recovery and got tackled, caught from behind, and I was kind of getting in his ear about that, how he was slow and stuff. And then the next week I show up to watch him play and he gets a pick-six. So it was pretty cool being able to watch that and how the team is doing.”
With Lindenhurst playing Saturday for the Suffolk II title and a return trip to the LICs, there’s a chance that both Ruckerts could add to the family trophy case this season.
Said Ruckert: “That'd be something special for my mom and dad, to get to watch both of their kids get to do their things in the big games.”