Henry Ruggs was supposed to muzzle the doubters this week. Instead, the fastest man in college football, who spent almost three months working with Randy Moss, will enter the draft with the same question marks that dogged him at Alabama:
Sure, he’s fast, but can he run routes? Can he impact a team enough to warrant a top-15 pick? Can a team like the Eagles justify trading up from No. 21?
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Those questions would have been answered at Alabama’s pro day, initially scheduled for March 24, then moved to April 9 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, then canceled March 12 when the NFL shut down predraft preparations. No NFL personnel visiting college campuses. No college players holding private workouts. No predraft visits to NFL cities.
No chance for the Ruggses of the world to show off all of their hard work; to run the jet sweeps or the wide receiver screens that coaches like Doug Pederson so adore. When the draft starts April 23, teams will rely on game tape, scouting combine results, and their gut feelings. Will Howie Roseman’s gut let him gamble a mid-round pick to trade up and snag this 5-foot-11, 188-pound human missile?
Yes, Ruggs ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash -- not only the fastest at the 2020 combine, and the fastest by a receiver by almost one-tenth of a second, but also tied for the sixth-best time since 1999, when the combine began timing electronically. It was mainly that speed that led to 24 touchdowns in 40 games, but is speed enough reason to spend such a precious pick?
John Ross set the record with a 4.22 in 2017, but Ross, listed at nearly the same size, has since been an injury-addled bust for the Cincinnati Bengals. Then again, Tyreek Hill, the @cheetah of the champion Chiefs, ran a 4.29 at West Alabama’s pro day in 2016, and Eagles burner DeSean Jackson clocked 4.35 in 2008, and their careers have been magnificent. Somehow, Ruggs’s 4.27 in Indianapolis didn’t surprise assembled scouts. But then, they knew he’d hit 24.3 mph while taking a slant 81 yards for a touchdown against South Carolina -- more than 2 mph faster than any NFL player in the past three seasons, according to NFL.com’s NextGen stats.
“It was the most-expected 4.2 I’ve ever seen,” said Yo Murphy, Ruggs’ trainer. “This was a no-win situation for Henry unless he ran a 4.21. They started talking about other things.”
Some of the same things Randy Moss endured more than 20 years ago.
Moss, who played at Marshall, logged a hand-held 4.24 in 1998, but concerns over his character, his small-school background, and his route-running dropped him to 21st. This, coincidentally, is where the Eagles draft.
Ruggs won’t be there at 21. Not after a 4.27. Not after working with Moss.
Ruggs, a junior, declared for the draft Jan 6. He flew to Tampa, Fla., two weeks later to begin work with Moss and Murphy, a former NFL and CFL receiver who is director of sports performance at Applied Science and Performance Institute. Murphy has worked with 2014 draftees Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, who have combined for 639 catches and 64 TDs, as well as Eagles Super Bowl heroes Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, and a legion of others.
Murphy figured that Moss, who regularly contracts with APSI, was the perfect coach for a fellow burner like Ruggs. They concentrated on detail.
“When you’re running that fast, it’s hard to stop; when you’re a 4.27, it’s hard to have breaks [in the route] to match that gas," Murphy said. "The big thing that Moss worked with him on was control.”
Control can equal deception: "Understanding how to lose a guy without using all of your speed. Using the illusion of speed; making them think every time you run a ‘go’ route, you’re using all your speed.”
Moss needed more than just speed to catch 156 touchdown passes (second all-time) and to accrue 15,292 receiving yards (fourth) in his Hall of Fame career. Ruggs needed more than speed to move into the top half of the first round. He tends to go zero-to-lightning every time he leaves the line. That’s fine for quick hitters, such as slants and hitches, whose brevity keep Ruggs from reaching top speed anyway. Ruggs’ lack of nuance convinced Moss to focus on intermediate routes, such as 14-to-16-yard digs and curls.
“On his digs, he’d plant, but continue to gain ground toward the DB because of the velocity he had entering the plant. He needed to push with the same intensity off the line, but he needed to focus on control," Murphy said. "His drive now is fast hands, fast feet, shoulders down to the ground, get out of it. That’s going to help him stay on that line and gain ground going back to the quarterback.”
Of course, ignoring long receptions with Moss as a coach is like taking classes from Emeril and ignoring creole cooking, so, Bam!, they went deep on going deep.
Moss told Ruggs to concentrate on the defensive backs’ feet, Murphy said; to “chase their toes,” make them commit before using a burst of speed. The magic, Moss told Ruggs, lay in working the angles:
" ‘If I’m going to run an in-cut, I’m going to get on that inside edge, gradually, slowly, not let a DB know, and then get to his toes, and plant.’ "
Ruggs had enough time. “Moss had weeks to work with him on it,” Murphy said.
Murphy had plenty of time, too, though Murphy focused less on technique and more on strengthening Ruggs’ knee, hip, and ankle joints, so he would be better equipped to get in and out of the type of cuts precise routes demand.
Ruggs visited the combine Feb. 27, returned to Tampa in mid-March, and was scheduled to stay through mid-April, but the terrifying spread of COVID-19 foretold tightening restrictions throughout the South. Ruggs fled home, to Montgomery, Ala., on March 28, just four days before Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that Florida would join most of the rest of the country in lockdown. Alabama locked down two days later.
Which left Ruggs training on his old weight bench and running routes in his childhood back yard.
After he ran the 4.27 at the combine, Ruggs felt tightness in his right quadriceps. This convinced him to forgo not only a second chance at breaking Ross’ 40-yard record, it also convinced him that running routes in front of scouts that night would be unwise. He’d already jumped 42 inches, tied for second-best at the combine, and thereby proved himself the best athlete in his draft class.
But lots of teams have been burned by elite athletes. That’s why Alabama teammate Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma star CeeDee Lamb, bigger and more polished, consistently rate higher. After working with Moss for weeks, though, Ruggs figured he’d blow them away at the combine.
“I wanted him in the same line with Jeudy and CeeDee, to see what he can do,” Murphy said. “You put that next to his time and his jumps, and you have an elite, elite receiver on your hands.”
But Ruggs couldn’t run the routes in Indy. Now, with no pro days and no workouts allowed, Murphy has to play salesman. Every team has contacted him about Ruggs, Murphy said, including the Eagles. He tells them all the same thing: Ruggs isn’t just a burner.
“Don’t put this guy in that bucket," Murphy said. "He can turn some people. He can run routes. The fixes he needs are so simple. He’s not a straight-line speed guy. He’s got shake. He’s got quickness. He’s going to be a formidable guy to cover, like Tyreek. He’s not a track guy who plays football.”
Ruggs knows it would be better if the teams could see that for themselves. He’s projected to go anywhere from 13th to 15th, but just moving up a few spots could mean millions of dollars. But the world is on hold, so he’s resigned himself to the pleasant reality that he’s just one phone call from reaching the NFL.