INDIANAPOLIS – It wasn’t long ago Jeremy Ruckert had doubters as to whether he’d be able to develop into a tight end who could block. He was a receiver at Lindenhurst High School and recruited by several major programs before deciding to attend Ohio State, but he’d never really played the type of in-line position he was going to be faced with in Columbus.
It got to the point even he wasn’t sure he could do it, especially when his first tasks as a freshman on campus were to tangle with the likes of new teammates Joey Bosa and Chase Young.
"It was definitely humbling," he said. "There were moments that freshman year where you are thinking, ‘Am I meant for this?’ It would have been easy to just pack up and go someplace else."
Now the doubters are back as Ruckert prepares to make the jump to the NFL. Only this time they aren’t unimpressed by his blocking abilities. Those, in fact, have blossomed into his best asset. It’s his skill set as a receiver that needs to be proved to the pro scouts who are at the Combine. In his career as a passing game afterthought in a Buckeye offense loaded with flashy receivers, Ruckert caught just 53 passes for 602 yards in the last three years.
He was hoping to give teams a glimpse of that other side of his game this week but a foot injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl last month has prevented him from participating in most of the physical aspects of the Combine (he’ll still do the bench press on Thursday and has been interviewing with many organizations). He hopes to be ready for the Ohio State Pro Day on March 23.
"I’m kind of bummed out not running," he said. "I wish I could have run for everybody. That’s kind of the big question with me."
For those who have been paying attention long enough, it shouldn’t be. Before he was known as one of the fiercest and most physical blocking tight ends in this draft class he was that flashy hands man that NFL offenses are all trying to find.
"I remember seeing this kid at the Nike Opening, which was for all the top high school players," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "We were covering that for NFL Network that year that he was coming out. It was Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence, and he stood out. I noticed him as a high school kid, just his ability to really go get the football. You know he can do that. I don't think he's ultra, ultra twitched up and explosive, but I think you want guys that are dynamic and it's also sure nice to be able to put your hand in the ground and be a friend to the running back and not just the quarterback. I think he can do that."
Still, it would have been nice to show it. Early in Senior Bowl practices he was used in a more diverse way but the foot injury ended that experiment. Being able to have run routes and caught passes at the Combine would have gone a long way toward raising his draft stock.
"It's a traits-over-production position right now," Jeremiah said. "You're trying to find guys that have the ability to do those things. You don't necessarily need to have seen them do it, but they need to have that ability. In terms of workouts and pro days and combine, I think corners have the most riding on it because you've got to really be able to run there. I would say tight ends are second because it's really evolved into being a traits position. You get the traits and you can figure the rest of it out."
Ruckert won’t be able to do much in Indianapolis this week, but he did demonstrate that ability in the 2019 Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin in the very stadium where the Combine is being held. His one-handed touchdown grab helped Ohio State forge its comeback win.
"That kind of sums up my career," he said of the highlight-reel play, "not really having all the production and numbers and targets but when the ball comes my way making sure I make the most of it."
There is precedent for such a player. Ruckert said he tries to model his game on that of 49ers tight end George Kittle. Before Kittle became a playmaker in the NFL he was a seldom-targeted tight end at Iowa who caught 44 passes in his final two seasons in college.
Ruckert says he likes Kittle’s blocking better than his backstory, though.
"I love the way he plays the game, his mindset, all of the jobs that he does," Ruckert said. "He’s an every-down tight end, he can do everything, he excels at everything. But the biggest thing that sticks out when you watch him is his mentality and mindset. He’s not just trying to block somebody he’s trying to take him out and I respect that."
Ruckert may soon get another chance to go up against Bosa and Young and other top NFL edge rushers. There has been plenty of chatter about him coming back to New York, too, as the Giants and Jets are both tight end-needy teams entering the draft. The Jets got a chance to see him up close as they coached the Senior Bowl and both teams have met with him here this week.
"I think people back home would go crazy," he said of the possibility. "They would love it… Back home and on Long Island they love their Jets and they love their Giants and that would be special for them."
Even though he grew up a Jets fan, Ruckert said he isn’t thinking about playing so close to where he grew up. He just wants an opportunity to play for an NFL team no matter where they are.
"I’m not getting caught up in when I get picked or where I end up," he said. "The biggest thing for me is that whichever team picks me I’m there for a reason and I’ll try to go there and give them everything I have. The biggest thing I want to accomplish my rookie year is gaining that trust of my teammates and organization for hopefully years and years to come."
Just as he did over his career at Ohio State.
"That was the biggest [part of the] decision for me going to Ohio State was I wanted to be that complete guy, I wanted to adapt to that toughness and their culture," he said. "I knew going into Ohio State that maybe the production wouldn’t be there but what I was going to get out of that program, the person I’d become, the player I’d become, the versatility I’ve been able to adapt to, I don’t regret that at all. I’ve learned how to play in a really competitive environment against great competition every week, winning championships, playing games.
"Shoot, I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I think that’s what’s gotten me here and I’m glad for that."