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A deep dive on Raiders rookie receiver Henry Ruggs, the fastest person in Alabama

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Vegas took a chance on Ruggs with the 12th overall pick, but he fits into the offense now and works as an eye towards the future

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Alabama at Texas A&M Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When I was scrolling down the list of 29 high school football recruits headed to play for Alabama in 2017, I found myself stopping in shock, amazement, and frankly, disgust, as I noticed at the bottom a name that only had two stars.

Thomas Fletcher.”

It made me wonder what was wrong with this obvious “freak” and “abnormality” to bring his two-star talents to Alabama. What does he think Alabama is? USC?! I first saw no stats for him at the college-reference site and assumed he must have walked off quicker than he walked on. Then I saw his page at the Alabama website.

“rated the No. 1 long snapper in the country by 247Sports and Scout”

Of course. Oh and yeah, he’s been a damn diamond over three years as the Crimson Tide’s longsnapper. Probably a 15-year player in the NFL.

Such are the expectations of Alabama recruits, a program who I can hardly blame for gaming a system that is clearly (to me, but definitely not definitively) broken. Many of us are used to watching professional sports, where the players are paid over the table and “fairness” is claimed as critically important for all parties involved. Not so in the NCAA, and for understandable reasons because choosing a school to play for is still choosing a school to study at and that the school must also want the student. But schools like Alabama don’t have to do much now to compete on Saturdays.

Top recruits need only watch last weekend’s NFL draft to know which colleges are going to make them more likely to become millionaires.

Tua Tagovailoa.

Jedrick Wills.

Henry Ruggs.

Jerry Jeudy.

Four of the top 15 players selected last Thursday played for Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide added four more in the second round: Xavier McKinney, Trevon Diggs, and Raekwon Davis. A fourth, Jalen Hurts, had transferred to Oklahoma from Alabama only a year earlier.

Alabama didn’t just have one quarterback drafted in the top 60. They had two.

But as surprised as I was to see Fletcher’s name next to two stars, I was almost just as surprised to see where Ruggs stood on the 2017 recruitment list; not only was Ruggs “only” a four-star prospect, he might not have even been the best four-star prospect. He might not even have been the best four-star receiving prospect to choose Alabama (annoying.)

Henry Ruggs III was a four-star, 6’, 171 pound receiver recruit out of Montgomery, AL at Robert E. Lee High School. In spite of his obvious gifts that would translate to football and the fact that he’s 6’, Ruggs may have preferred to follow his love of basketball. But Tyrone Rogers, the school’s football coach, convinced Ruggs to give football a shot and that if he didn’t have a college offer within four games, that he could quit.

“You don’t see those young men often and you quickly identify great talent,” Rogers said. “His explosiveness, ability to change direction, great hands, hand-to-eye coordination, he’s one of the few. Before he even played football, I was telling scouts this is a top-five receiver in the state of Alabama and he hasn’t even touched the field yet.”

Ruggs said he started getting attention after two games.

As a senior basketball player, Ruggs averaged 10.7 points per game and three assists.

As a junior football player, Ruggs caught 44 passes for 1,010 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The numbers and more from USA Today:

Ruggs went from no stars to four stars basically overnight after his play last season. He has 19 reported offers and a top five of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State and Penn State. Many expect him to remain in-state with the Tide.

“It’s been real crazy because basically I went from being a basketball star, someone who dunks all the time, to being a superstar athlete,” Ruggs said. “It’s different for me because more people know me and things of that nature. It’s an honor though to see that I’m being recognized for everything I’m doing.”

Explosive, agile and can jump over the goal post, the only knock on Ruggs has been his slim stature. Although listed at 175 pounds, he actually played at 160 pounds his junior season. Emphasizing work in the weight room and his nutrition, Ruggs is up to 170 pounds and feels faster than he’s ever been, even though he’s run a 4.3 40-yard dash multiple times.

That showed in his stats as a senior with 20 touchdowns on 102 touches in nine games, according to AL.com. The numbers: 38 catches for 639 yards receiving and nine TDs; 36 carries for 446 yards and seven TDs; seven kickoff returns for 352 yards and a score. He also played quarterback late in the season and threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

Whether it was four stars or five stars, it wasn’t as though people didn’t have high expectations for Ruggs. For one, Ruggs set a state record in the 100m dash as a senior in high school, a trait that would help him again at the combine three years later. Ruggs was All-Metro boys track and field athlete of the year.

It wasn’t as though he wasn’t a local star, as most football players who get offers from Alabama will be legends at their schools. It’s just that the Crimson Tide snag a lot of good football players. Saban’s also really good at recruiting. A couple of days before Ruggs committed to Alabama, the Tide had offered to Kevontae Ruggs, Henry’s younger brother. It’s not as though Kevontae can’t play, but he wasn’t typical Alabama caliber. (He went to Ole Miss.)

Here’s what Brent Taylor of Roll Bama Roll had to say of Ruggs back in 2017, while also noting that fellow receiver recruit Jeudy was “Calvin Ridley 2.0” and that Shavers (6’6, 4.38 40-yard dash) had the potential to be the next Randy Moss, if only he manages to round out his game beyond just going deep.

Pros

Ruggs is an extremely smooth and fluid athlete with incredible balance and slippery, effortless speed. That is especially evident in his ability after the catch with the ball in his hands. He can speed around corners, slip through holes between defenders, and make would-be tacklers miss with seemingly no effort at all. He can go from fast to faster with no visible change in stride, leaving defenders taking bad angles and wondering how it happened.

Cons

At this point, he’s more of a gadget player than a true receiver. Give him a wide receiver screen or an end-around, and you’re as likely to score as anything else, but will he be able to become a true receiver that can make plays even when he isn’t given the ball in space?

Despite his speed and fluidity, his routes tend to be a bit rounded rather than crisp, and he doesn’t do many routes other than slants, curls, and the occasional fly. Though nothing suggest he has anything but consistent hands, he hasn’t displayed any ability to make tough catches in traffic yet.

To make his commitment announcement, Ruggs made a video honoring his late friend Rod Scott, who had died in a car accident a year earlier. You can read Scott’s story here. It was also a chance for 300,000 people to watch Ruggs’ commitment and also find out about his good friend.

In 2017, Ruggs chose Alabama over Florida State, a school that you would have figured would be better as they had three of the top five recruits in 2017 (of those, Cam Akers was drafted last week), and put himself in the mix with a lot of other great players. It’s not hard to be a legend at home and then soon a transfer out of Alabama.

Ruggs joined a class with seven five-star recruits at Rivals, including a receiver (Jeudy), a top-10 pick (Wills), and even a guy named Buggs. They had a five-star Buggs and a four-star Ruggs. “Buggs and Ruggs” sounds like it could be an extermination service.

There was also running back Najee Harris, the number one recruit in the country according to some. Jeudy and Wills were in the top 25. Among the other four-star receiver commits were DeVonta Smith and Tyrell Shavers, plus “athlete” Chadarius Townsend. As you can imagine, Ruggs was also going to a team that already had starting receivers, like future first round pick Calvin Ridley.

But it was evident that opportunities were coming.

Ridley was the only player on Alabama in 2017 to catch more than 17 passes, and Ruggs was the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands that season. Though Ridley caught 63 passes and Ruggs only had 12, he led the Crimson Tide in touchdown receptions as a true freshman with six. In fact, Ruggs caught five passes through eight games and they all went for touchdowns. He got the nickname “Touchdown City” after his fifth.

“When he caught that, someone said that (stat) on the sidelines and I didn’t really believe them,” left guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “I didn’t notice that he’d done that. It’s pretty incredible for a young guy to have success like that. And just happy for him. And happy for our offense, too.”

A 16-yard TD vs Fresno State.

An 8-yard TD vs Ole Miss.

An 8-yard TD vs Texas A&M.

A 20-yard TD vs Arkansas.

A 60-yard TD vs Tennessee.

Facing 19th-ranked LSU a week after the Vols, Ruggs ended the streak and didn’t score. He “only” caught a 47-yard pass from Hurts. Ruggs would go the whole season without catching more than one pass in a game, but then his role was expanded in the College Football Playoffs. He caught two passes in a win over Clemson and three passes with a touchdown in the national championship victory over Georgia.

With 12 catches, plus sporadic work on special teams, Ruggs was named to the All-SEC freshman team in 2017. Said Saban of his young scoring weapon:

“He gets open and then he catches the ball,” Saban said. “We call plays that give him a chance to get open, so that gives him a chance to catch the ball and he gives the quarterback a chance to throw it to him... I think that’s what he’s supposed to do, that’s what the quarterback is supposed to do, that’s what we’re supposed to design and the more athletic and faster they are the harder they are to cover. Thems the kind of guys we want around here.”

Thems they are.

Perhaps just as telling was this comment from Jalen Hurts:

For a while, Hurts joked that he was taking things personally. That was until he connected with Ruggs for touchdowns the past two weeks against Texas A&M and Arkansas.

“When his number’s called, he answers the phone and he makes plays,” Hurts said after the game last week. “I always messed with him early on that he wouldn’t catch mine, but he’d catch Tua’s. He’s doing a great job.”

After Tagovailoa’s heroics in the national championship game, he became Alabama’s go-to starter at quarterback in 2018. With Ridley in the NFL, this would also open things up for Jeudy, Ruggs, Smith, and true freshman Jaylen Waddle. Alabama gave Hurts 255 passes and Tua 77 passes in 2017. They gave Tua 355 passes and Hurts 70 passes in 2018.

The Crimson Tide are now a passing team.

From no wide receiver other than Ridley with more than 14 receptions to these stats in 2018:

  • Jeudy, 68/1,315/14
  • Ruggs, 46/741/11
  • Waddle, 45/848/7
  • Smith, 42/693/6
  • Irv Smith Jr (TE), 44/710/7

Unbelievable.

But still, nobody on Alabama could score like Ruggs can score. After barely making an appearance in Week 1 vs Louisville, Ruggs caught six touchdowns over the next five games, at least one in every game. Later on against fourth-ranked LSU, Ruggs had four catches for 55 yards and the opening touchdown of the game. Two weeks later, he scored twice against Auburn.

In two CFP games, Ruggs caught only four passes for 17 yards, but he did score again. Through his first two college seasons, Ruggs had scored 17 touchdowns on 58 catches, a rate of one touchdown for every 3.4 catches.

Though it was called back on a flag, Ruggs showed his speed out on this 84-yard catch and run vs Missouri:

There’s little I want to cut out from this piece about the play on Dothan Eagle.

“When I saw Ruggs pass Smitty, I knew that he was gone,” fellow sophomore receiver Jerry Jeudy said earlier this season. “Me practicing with him, I know Ruggs’ speed. When I saw him past Smitty on the block I knew he was gone.”

Ruggs’ top-end speed on the play was clocked at approximately 23.27 miles per hour by Alabama’s Catapult system, which monitors and records player movement in both games and at practice. It set a new program record after surpassing the 22.05 mph velocity Kenyan Drake reached on his infamous 95-yard kick return in the 2015 national championship game against Clemson.

For comparison, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt was timed with an average pace of approximately 23.35 mph during his world record-setting 100-meter sprint (9.58 seconds) at the 2009 World Championships.

In other words: Henry Ruggs III is really fast.

“You know, the guys, they’re kind of surprised by it, but I feel like I need to be trying to get faster,” Ruggs said Monday.

Ruggs also had what ESPN calls a “circus catch” against Oklahoma, but I don’t know what circus these people are going to. Are they talking about the NFL? That’s typically where footballs are caught. Or even college football games. I probably wouldn’t pay to see Odell Beckham Jr at a circus.

Another good catch:

Circus, magic, or simply the dark arts of Alabama, Ruggs and most of the Crimson Tide’s offense returned in 2019. Unlike having to replace Ridley a year earlier, there was no one to replace. They’d all be returning (other than Irv), all the more interesting that Alabama had their worst season since 2014.

It’s a wonder how Nick Saban was even able to get up in the morning after finishing 11-2.

But obviously nothing would slow down Ruggs.

In the second game of the season, Ruggs caught a backwards pass (so a run) from Tua and took it 80 yards, for an official score of 75 yards. He clocked 23 MPH on this one. He also caught four passes for 66 yards and a touchdown that day.

Ruggs would have 122 yards and a touchdown vs South Carolina and 148 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Miss in the following two games. But truth be told, this was about half of Ruggs’ production in 2019. He had 350 yards after four games, but had just shy of 400 yards over the final eight games.

His best total the rest of the way would be a six-catch, 99-yard day against Auburn, a game they lost with backup Mac Jones under center for the injured Tua; Jones threw for 335 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.

His “rush attempt” vs New Mexico State would be one of only two in his entire Alabama career — a potential utilization of him at the next level given the way things are going with versatility among skill players — and the other was one rush for no yards against Michigan in his career finale.

Whether it has anything to do with an injury to Tua, the design of the Alabama offense, the depth at receiver, or other, consistency and volume were not strengths of Ruggs during his time in college. Though the Crimson Tide may not be running air raid, Devonta Smith had 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns and Jeudy had 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Ruggs came in third, catching 40 passes for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. Eight, when you include the one vs NM State.

Here’s what Brent Taylor had to say after Ruggs’ three seasons at Alabama:

Ruggs obviously developed a good bit since then. Despite his size, he now plays really physical both before and after the catch. He can high point a contested ball with the best of them and charges headfirst into tacklers.

I’d also add he’s become a very competent blocker on WR screens.

Never really developed as a kick returner. He’s fast, obviously, but actually not all that great at juking people and doesn’t have a feel for being a step ahead of defenders while weaving through blockers.

It’s interesting to consider the players who become NFL players because they changed a lot since high school and the ones who become NFL players because they don’t change at all. What did Ruggs change about himself as a draft prospect as opposed to a high school recruit after three years at Alabama?

For one, Ruggs committed himself to playing football and then he proved to do the one thing that every skill player hopes to do as often as possible to prove his worth: score touchdowns. Though I think touchdown totals can be overrated, there’s no denying that the point of the game is the points of the game. Ruggs turned 25% of his touches into touchdowns at Alabama.

But there will be questions about the volume of his production until Ruggs proves what he can and can’t do at the next level. All scouts could do was see the high scoring numbers, the situation at Alabama with elite receivers around him, and then much like Saban and other college coaches, evaluate the “athlete” side of Ruggs and project him into your offense.

We could safely assume there would not be a problem on the “athlete” side of things for a track star.

The fastest player typically “wins” the combine and that wasn’t an issue really for Ruggs. Though he was disappointed in his time, Ruggs ran a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash, fastest at the combine and only four have ever been faster. Ruggs said that he had been working every day on his 40 and that he felt he could have been faster.

Of the seven players to run a 4.27 or faster, all were drafted in the top 100 picks and Ruggs became the fourth to go in the first round, joining Donte Stallworth, John Ross, and Chris Johnson. And of the 22 fastest players ever at the combine, six were drafted by the Raiders. As a matter of fact, Ruggs is remarkably close to Fabian Washington, the 23rd overall pick by Oakland in the 2005 draft:

  • Ruggs is 5’11, 188 pounds, 4.27 40-yard dash, 42” vertical, 131” broad
  • Washington was 5’10, 188 pounds, 4.29 40-yard dash, 41.5” vertical, 129” broad

Micheal Huff was also fairly close to those numbers.

With that in hand, the Las Vegas Raiders selected Henry Ruggs III, WR out of Alabama, with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, making him the first receiver off the board. Only three years after he was Rivals’ 19th-ranked receiver in the nation and perhaps not even a top-three receiver on his own team, Ruggs got drafted first in what was often hailed as the best overall wide receiver class in decades, if not ever.

From being ranked 125th nationally in 2017 to going over Tristan Wirfs, Javon Kinlaw, Jeudy, and CeeDee Lamb in the 2020 draft.

Linked to a receiver in the draft from the moment that 2020 mock drafts were being created, obviously exacerbated by the conditions of the 2019 season for the Raiders, Vegas GM Mike Mayock was going to come out with a receiver in this draft. He could have had any of them and then he chose Ruggs. He’d soon choose two more in the third round, with Bryan Edwards going right after Lynn Bowden, who will start his NFL career as a running back.

Ruggs too may need versatility to showcase himself as much more than a decoy and a touchdown target as a rookie.

If Lamb or Jeudy were perceived as big players who could step in as Derek Carr’s number one target from moment one, Ruggs is the one who you maybe grab for late in the game, late in the season, and perhaps later in his rookie contract. He didn’t have an impact with Alabama — outside of his six touchdowns — until his sophomore year. For Ruggs to not get more than 20-30 targets as a rookie would not at all be surprising.

In my previous write-up on Hunter Renfrow and a potential distribution of targets in 2020, I noted that Jon Gruden shouldn’t have to rely on a rookie for mass targets. Carr shouldn’t and likely won’t shy from an increase to Renfrow, continued production towards Darren Waller, more dump-offs to Josh Jacobs, and Tyrell Williams, so long as he’s around and healthy. That’s plenty, but the team has since added Jason Witten, Nelson Agholor, and they’ve got Edwards and Bowden, in addition to Ruggs.

In fact, Ruggs makes sense as the perfect rookie addition under these constraints. He won’t command a lot and that sounds like it could be a positive more so than a negative. The hope is still that even if he gets only 20-30 targets as a rookie (which could result in 250-500 yards, I imagine), Ruggs can become that weapon for Gruden who could maybe even score 25% of the time in the league. Whether he’s got a 1,000-yard future remains to be seen but there are other ways to be valuable.

And Ruggs does make sense as a fit for the team now, as well as plugging into their plans to develop a potential star receiver for 2021 and beyond.

Either way, Mayock and Gruden will take what they’ve done in their second draft together and come away with another plan for the 2021 draft and I’ve already got my name on an elite position player at the college level who could make a ton of sense if he’s still available on day three ...

Tell me what you’ve heard about Thomas Fletcher.