EUGENE — Three years after Blake Rugraff sent in his highlight tape to Oregon, hoping for the best but expecting nothing in return, he’s become a regular on UO’s second-team defense through nine spring football practices.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore from the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles came to Oregon as a preferred walk-on and made the roster for the first time last spring after making it through a tryout. Last season, he was buried on the depth chart at his position by an influx of young recruits, but has taken advantage of the wide-open position battles launched this spring by coach Willie Taggart. During Saturday’s first scrimmage of spring, Rugraff played alongside Kaulana Apelu at inside ‘backer — he’s played the Mike position, but is also expected to move to the Jack, weakside spot — with the second-team defense.
On Wednesday, Rugraff spoke about his path from Missouri to UO’s regular linebacker rotation.
The Oregonian/OregonLive: How’d you get from Missouri, which isn’t a place Oregon usually recruits, to here as a walk-on?
Rugraff: I kind of just got an email from them late in the recruiting process and I kind of just wanted to play at a higher level than the FCS, which I had a couple offers at but I didn’t necessarily appeal to as much. Then I got an email from them and I’ve always wanted to play here. Just took the chance.
Had Oregon not emailed, what were your other options?
Rugraff: I had a preferred walk-on at Texas A&M I was also looking at and then same with Mizzou and some FCS schools like, I kind of liked Jacksonville University a lot. One of my buddies went to Drake and he was trying to pull me there, too, because he plays running back there.
Had anyone from Oregon seen you in person?
Rugraff: I sent film here and that was about it.
Was that sent on you taking a flyer or did you expect to hear back?
Rugraff: I was hoping to. I heard back from a couple schools, kind of like the same thing, Texas A&M sent me around the same thing. I sent it to mostly the bigger schools I was interested in that I’d actually be willing to take a walk-on to.
When you heard back from them, it was to be a preferred walk-on, then. So you didn’t necessarily have to try out once you got to Oregon?
Rugraff: Not necessarily because I ended up actually having to try out, it was a numbers thing. I had to do the tryout ut, I mean, I was pretty confident I would still make it.
Tryouts in the past were always described as running a 40-yard dash and maybe a drill or two in front of coaches. Was that how yours went?
Rugraff: I was under the impression when the last staff was here that you ran a 40, and if you ran a good enough 40 you went and did drills with the position coach that was interested in you. From there, it was only five or six guys who got pulled out from the 40.
How stressful is that? You’re coming from halfway across the country and don’t have a guarantee you’ll make the team.
Rugraff: I just trusted myself. I’ve been playing football since I was a child so I stuck to what I did and went with it. I was practicing other stuff before I came in.
So now, how have you reached the point where you’re getting reps with the first- and second-team defense?
Rugraff: Just listen to the coaches and a lot of the younger guys have been good mentors, like Johnny Ragin and Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick and them. Danny Mattingly, he’s also great. Since I’ve been here Danny has helped me a lot, probably the most out of everyone. Just listening and taking the best out of every opportunity.
This spring, you are in a situation where there is a clean depth chart and that’s worked in your favor. Did you think this might be the scenario when the new staff came in?
Rugraff: I guess so, that was a big mental thing going in it but I almost popped into the (70-man) travel squad last year so I kind of was slowly was working my way into (the rotation). Coach Leavitt said just take a chance because everyone’s getting a clean slate. He wasn’t going to take anything for granted from what anyone’s done in the past. Just do your best and if you earn it, you earn it.
Can you best put into words what Jim Leavitt has been like as a coordinator and position coach?
Rugraff: (Laughs) He’s an awesome coach but he is full of energy.
What was your first impression of him?
Rugraff: Honestly I wasn’t too sure just because I didn’t want to make a quick judgment about it, but we’d just be sitting in meetings just talking and you’d get a huge spurt of just like, a yell, and you’d be like, ‘Oh.’ He kind of explains why he does some things but I think he’s a great guy. I like him a lot. He’s a great coach. Learning the defense hasn’t been that hard, he just coaches it so well, teaches it.
— Andrew Greif